'Michael Gove's work is compromised by the limitations of his own private education'

19th November 2013 at 16:25

Professor Bernard Barker, visiting fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London, writes:

The secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, arouses strong emotions. People love or hate him.

On the right, he is perceived as the rising hope of the Conservative Party, dedicated to raising standards, while education professionals believe a bunch of lunatics have taken over the policy asylum, with disastrous consequences for the future.

But no one seems to have noticed that Mr Gove has invaded the traditional territory of progressive politicians and educators.

He presents himself as fighting the civil rights battle of our time, and asserts that he is "determined to do everything I can to help the poorest children in our country" transcend their disadvantaged backgrounds and make it into "our best universities" and walk into the best jobs.

Access to a quality education, he complains, "is rationed for the poor, the vulnerable and those from minority communities".

Mr Gove embraces a progressive agenda that once belonged to his opponents, and blames them for failing to raise standards and for throwing social mobility into reverse, especially for the disadvantaged. His curriculum and examination reforms are designed to harness old-fashioned values to a great progressive cause.

This bold but paradoxical policy stance has puzzling origins. He claims that his personal background has given him a special affinity with the disadvantaged and has inspired his passion for education. His biography is presented as a Hans Christian Andersen story, with Gove as an ugly duckling who is changed into a lovely swan by a splendid private school.

One of our hero’s earliest childhood memories was of watching his father skinning and gutting fish by hand as dawn broke over the harbour in the granite city of Aberdeen. But this was not to be young Michael’s fate. He was said to be exceptionally bright and won a place at Robert Gordon’s College.

The duckling was transformed and according to the Daily Mail found his way to "the hallowed corridors of Lady Margaret Hall, set in acres of landscaped grounds overlooking the River Cherwell" where he "finessed his razor-sharp debating skills".

A traditional education is supposed to have enabled the adopted son of a man who skinned and gutted fish by hand to become the author of his own life story and to walk into the best jobs in the country.

This is the Daily Mail version of his biography, based on an interview given a few weeks before the 2010 General Election. The Guardian has another. Young Michael’s adopted father was not a dockside manual worker but ran a successful family fish-processing business.

Gove senior purchased a semi-detached house and paid school fees. Robert Gordon’s College was not a distinguished public school but the second cheapest private day school in Scotland, described by a former pupil as a glorified grammar.

This "traditional" boys' school selected about half its pupils from state primaries, and creamed talent from the surrounding neighbourhood. The young Michael "never shared a desk with anyone who struggled to read and write" and was protected from contact with"‘rough boys", according to the paper.

Michael Gove may have seemed "exceptionally bright" in the sheltered environment of an undistinguished Scottish private school but at Oxford his upper second failed to match the achievements of contemporaries like Ed Balls and David Cameron.

Together, these stories suggest that young Michael’s passion for education (it worked for me) and his limited understanding of what is involved in providing good and appropriate schooling for the full ability range (follow my example, not your needs) stem from his personal experiences in Scotland. But he does not have a realistic appraisal of his own success.

His parents were much better off than those of the free school meal children to whom he wishes to extend the benefits of an academic education, and he attributes too much of his talent and personality to his formal education and too little to the culture and dispositions of his adoptive family.

He does not appreciate that his work now is seriously compromised by the limitations of his private schooling. He met few ordinary people, formed an unrealistic understanding of British society, and imbibed the typical prejudices of those who pay fees to avoid mixing with everyone else.

He expects to assuage the nagging guilt of the upwardly mobile by promising comparable success to those who are prepared to follow his example. Mr. Gove’s sincerity is not the problem, but his false hope that the Robert Gordon formula can produce a more equal society. There is something profoundly odd about the idea that private schools, set up to exclude the lower orders, should inspire a crusade to overcome disadvantage.

Under Mr Gove, education reform has become an intensely personal project, with teachers and children obliged to follow the Pied Piper on his journey, whether it is right for them or not.

Government policies have become indistinguishable from Mr Gove’s own personality and vision, and are compromised by the prejudices embodied in this would be author of other people’s lives.

His instinctive distaste for state schools, and for those who work in them, and his demand that they become something else entirely, has alienated the very teachers on whom the future of education depends.

But paradoxical policies lead to uncomfortable questions. Does Mr Gove sincerely wish to produce greater equality, with every inner city child deploying the language of Chaucer, Pope and Dryden?

His own upward mobility has carried him far from Aberdeen, far away from his adoptive family and far above the working poor of the community he has left behind.

But when everyone has learned the trick, who will remain in Aberdeen and how much will the Conservative mind then value qualifications that are universally shared?

Does Mr Gove really hope to be reunited with the "rough boys" from Aberdeen and to practice a politics in which social divisions play no part? Could he cope if Utopia arrives, against all expectations?

This is a shortened version of The Enigmatic Mr Gove which first appeared in FORUM, volume 55, Number 3, 2013


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