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Michael Gove MP: Be angry on behalf of those failed by the education system - if we aren't, who will be?

GOVE MICHAEL NWMichael Gove is the Secretary of State for Education. This is the first of two extracts from an article which originally appeared in Standpoint magazine.

Most of the time I don’t think about being adopted. Any more than I think about the colour of my eyes. Or the size of my  feet. It’s all part of who I am—and how I was made. But sometimes it hits you. There’s a moment when you can’t help but think that your life might have been different—very different—if  another family had taken you into their hearts.  

Like the day six years ago when, as Shadow Education Secretary, I was looking at the recently published GCSE performance of schools. One in particular caught my eye. A comprehensive on Merseyside where just 1 per cent of the children had managed to get five C passes at GCSE, including English and maths. Five GCSE passes (including English and maths) is the basic passport any child needs to be eligible for further study or a decent job. It’s the minimum a 16 year old needs to have a decent chance in life. There’s not a single Labour politician, Guardian columnist, trade union general secretary or university professor of education who would conceivably find their child falling short of that standard acceptable. But in that school in Merseyside, 99 out of 100 children failed to acquire even that basic level of knowledge.

What would happen to them, I thought? Who was angry on their behalf? Who cared?

And what would have happened to me if I’d been at that school?

My own, adoptive, parents weren’t wealthy. They’d been accepted to adopt me because their background was similar to my birth mother’s. They were also chosen because they lived a few hours away from her home city of Edinburgh. What, I wondered, if I had been adopted by similarly loving parents who happened to live a few hours south of Edinburgh? On Merseyside? In the catchment area of that school? What chances in life would I have? Would I now be sitting around the Shadow Cabinet table?

How, I thought, could we tolerate such grotesque unfairness? How, after ten years of a government committed to education reform, did we still have a school in the European City of Culture where 99 out of 100 16-year-olds had effectively been robbed of their future? How could we as a society allow ourselves to entertain such low expectations of our children?

The fact that the school was in Merseyside struck another chord with me. I’m a fan of Liverpool—its vibrancy, its humour, its resilience. And one of my favourite films—Willy Russell’s Educating Rita—is set in the city. Rita, played by Julie Walters, is a working-class woman who wants to better herself and so signs up for an Open University course. She bewitches her lecturer Frank—played by Michael Caine—who sees in her a love of learning he’d almost entirely lost.

Frank’s desire to help Rita extends to inviting her into his life. But Rita finds that a step too far. In an—almost unbearably poignant—scene at the heart of the film, Rita is invited to a dinner party at Frank’s. When she arrives at his door she can hear the bookish chatter from inside—but she can’t bear to cross the threshold because she fears she isn’t sophisticated enough for his middle-class world.

Instead, she returns to the warmth and intimacy of her family’s local. There she joins in a boozy singsong to a cheap jukebox hit. She loves everyone around the table—and there is no doubt that there is a solidarity and a sense of humour in the pub that is absent from Frank’s dining table. But Rita knows, nevertheless, that she has gone back to square one. She feels she may have missed out—perhaps forever—on the chance to choose her own life rather than accept the hand she’s been dealt. Her mother instinctively knows Rita deserves better and, mid sing-song, turns to her and says “there must be better songs to sing.” And at that point you weep for her.

But Rita, determined to find those better songs to sing, returns to university. Willy Russell gives her a second chance to achieve her full potential. But what of all the contemporary Ritas who were at that Liverpool school where just 1 per cent got the qualifications which even allowed them to think of university? What songs are they going to have the chance to sing?

Those two stories—one fact, one fiction; one tragic, one poignant—are all you really need to know about this government’s education policy. We are angered by the waste of talent in an education system where hundreds of thousands of children leave school without worthwhile qualifications. We are ashamed that the poorest in our society have been those most likely to lose out. We are convinced that the level of ambition in our education system has been far too low for far too long. And we want to give all children the chance to choose their own future.

That ambition is undeniably radical. In fact, it’s the realisation of a long-cherished but never yet fulfilled liberal dream. For most of human history most individuals have had their futures determined by forces beyond their control. Most men and women were hewers of wood and drawers of water—condemned to manual jobs dictated by where they grew up and who their parents were. They had no effective control over their economic lives, and thus very little control over their destinies. They never had the chance to fulfil themselves, or shape the world. They were the village Hampdens, the mute inglorious Miltons, the 99 out of 100 children who left that Merseyside school at 16 without five good GCSEs.

But education can change that. There is nothing fixed about any child’s future. Deprivation need not be destiny. If the right professionals—under the right leadership, with the right level of ambition—are given the freedom to teach the subjects they love in a disciplined environment, then any child can succeed.

Over the last three years the coalition government has been setting out to prove that every child can succeed.

We’ve been recruiting more highly qualified teachers. We’ve made it easier to pay good teachers more. By granting 3,000 state schools academy status we’ve given their headteachers the freedom that independent school heads have long enjoyed. We’ve given teachers the chance to build ambitious new academic institutions from scratch through our Free Schools programme. We’ve restored rigour and honesty to our exams by getting rid of the dumbed-down syllabuses and rigged assessment techniques that produced grade inflation. We’ve rewarded schools that teach the traditional subjects which help all students get into university. We’ve given heads and teachers new powers to keep order in the classroom. We’ve toughened up inspection. And we’ve transformed vocational qualifications so at last they’re as rigorous as academic courses.

The aim has been to encourage every school to match the best. And the best state schools in this country are wonderful proof that every child—from no matter what background—can succeed. I’ve stood in classrooms where half the children come from homes where English isn’t spoken, where half the children are so poor they’re eligible for free school meals, where their family memories are of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo or terror in Somalia, and heard those children discuss tyranny and legitimacy in Julius Caesar and Macbeth. And those children were only ten.

I’ve visited schools where more—many more—children than the national average are registered as having special educational needs. But where every child manages to perform well above the national average in numeracy and literacy.I’ve talked to headteachers whose schools have done what some consider impossible—eliminated any gap in academic performance between children from the richest and poorest homes. Those children so poor they are eligible for free school meals get the same—impressively high—marks at GCSE as those from affluent backgrounds. There is an urgent need to ensure that every school is as good as these.

There’s a social justice imperative. Children only have one chance and I don’t want more years to go by when hundreds of thousands of our poorest children leave school without the qualifications they need to succeed.

There’s an economic imperative. With every week that passes the need for change in education grows, because of the impact of globalisation. Globalisation is an ugly word for a double-edged force. The economic changes of the last 20 years have—in Thomas Friedman’s famous phrase—made the world flatter. That generates tremendous opportunities for those with the wherewithal to exploit them. But it also creates new problems for those without wealth, connections or, above all,education. The economic returns for the highly qualified continue to grow—and for those with mathematics qualifications they are growing at a remarkable rate. But for those without qualifications, jobs are fewer, wages are lower and opportunities are diminishing.

We can’t hope to compete internationally, and provide jobs for all, when 40 per cent of children still leave school in England without five good GCSEs and when our country languishes at 25th and 27th in the world for the quality of our students’ literacy and numeracy. That is why the case for reform is so urgent.

But above all there is a moral imperative to reform our schools. The principal goal of education is enlightenment—the introduction of a new generation to human creativity—and the glories of civilisation in all their richness. Whether that is the literature of Austen or Atwood, the joy of cricket or the pleasure of chess, the music of Bowie or Beethoven, the breakthroughs of Leibniz or Turing, the creations of Brunel or Berners-Lee, the work of Poussin or Gauguin, the discoveries of Curie or Feynman, the purpose of education is opening young minds to the achievements of great minds.

Part 2 of this article will be published on ConservativeHome tomorrow.


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