Coffee House

Gove takes on private school dominance and trade union opposition

10 May 2012

5:59 PM

10 May 2012

5:59 PM

The Education Secretary gave a very pugnacious speech this morning on the need to improve the country’s state schools. ‘It is
remarkable,’ Michael Gove said at independent school Brighton College, ‘how many of the positions of wealth, influence, celebrity and power in our society are held by individuals
who were privately educated’. He cited the various professions — politics, law, medicine — where private schools are ‘handsomely represented’.

That’s certainly not a new observation. Gove could have, if he’d wanted to, cited the Sutton Trust’s statistics (below) showing the proportion of judges, Lords and CEOs who come
from independent schools. Instead, he chose a more novel — and effective — way of making his point: reeling off the names of famous examples from film stars to

‘Hugh Laurie, Dominic West, Damian Lewis, Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne: all old Etonians. One almost feels sorry for Benedict Cumberbatch — a lowly Harrovian — and
Dan Stevens — heir to Downton Abbey and old boy of Tonbridge — is practically a street urchin in comparison.’

He goes on to name check a whole load of comedians (including Armando Iannucci, Michael McIntyre and David Mitchell), musicians (Laura Marling and Coldplay’s Chris Martin) and
journalists (Andrew Marr, George Monbiot and Laurie Penny) who were privately educated. At the end of his list, Gove concludes:

‘Now I record these achievements not because I wish to either decry the individuals concerned or criticise the schools they attended. Far from it. It is undeniable that the
individuals I have named are hugely talented and the schools they attended are premier league institutions. But the sheer scale, the breadth and the depth, of private school dominance of our
society points to a deep problem in our country — one we all acknowledge but have still failed to tackle with anything like the radicalism required.’

The rest of the speech is devoted to laying out the reforms Gove has set in motion to correct this failure. To finish he again shows off his combative side, citing the intense
opposition to his agenda as evidence of its success:

‘But, seriously, we know we are making progress when we hear the opposition from vested interests — from those in trade unions who put adults interests before children’s,
from those in local Government who put protecting their power before fulfilling children’s potential, from those who have acquiesced in a culture of low expectations who resist any form of
accountability for failure.

That opposition is out there — entrenched, organised, vocal and determined — and it is hoping we in the coalition government fail. But if we fail then so do thousands more of
our poorest children — and we cannot let that happen.’

Reforming our schoolsm to give state-educated children the same chances as those illustrious private-educated stars was never going to be easy, and was always going to attract a good
deal of vocal resistance. A more timid or less committed minister would have backed away from them long ago. But — as he demonstrated at Brighton College again today — Michael Gove is
very much up for the fight.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Fergus Pickering

    Anyone who supports elitism against social cohesion is OK by me. That means supporting the hard-working and intelligent against scroungers and dead legs, does it not, O Telemachus?

  • andrew fairfoull

    Privatise the whole education system and bring back selection, if we don’t we are finished.

  • Liberty

    Private schools succeed where the state does not for three main reasons. First, they select so can aim their education at a specific ability and character range. The likes of Pauls, KCS, etc select primarily on ability so they can teach to their needs without being held back by the needs of the less able. Second, they are independent so can manage things with freedom according to parent and pupil demand and their own priorities, no PC nonsense. They and parents want happy successful children. Period. Finally, the money goes to education and teachers. Whilst for state schools half the money goes to admin before it gets to the school in a private school 100% goes to the school itself. So, although the average spend per pupil is not much different between the two sectors [with some notable exceptions] the money is at least TWICE as well deployed.

  • Mindy Bindy

    Pat from Billericay needs to learn something about apostrophes before critiquing teachers’ grammar.

  • Bwuld & Ithpthp Pribbab


    “All Grammars do is add an additional strata and act as a barrier at the age of 11.”

    “Stratum”, surely?

  • Nicholas

    Not exactly, telemachus, you missed out the “whether real or more usually imagined.”

    There is more inequality in Britain, not less, since I was a boy and most of that down is to the crass ineptitude of socialists moving “forward”.

    Also, it might be to your advantage to learn the difference between argument and cant.

  • Cynic

    Exactly. There is so much inequality that socialism has to be the way forward.” Alas for all of us, tele, socialism has to keep inequality going in order to survive. If the poor were ever allowed to rise above their poverty status, they’d leave socialism behind.

  • telemachus’

    Socialism is a creed, a cult, that works only on the basis of “struggle” against oppression and inequality.
    Exactly. There is so much inequality that socialism has to be the way forward.

  • Pat from Billericay

    The problem started with too much success accruing to grammar school boys taking Oxbridge places after the Second World War*. In 1965 entrance requirements to Teacher Training Colleges all but disappeared. Public Schools rarely employed such folk anyway. Subsequently, O level GCE’s disappeared; CSE’s and GCSE’s took their place because, plainly, there’s no point in (State School) teachers teaching kids for exams that many of them could not themselves pass. Even ‘A’ levels were to some extent downgraded**.
    Thus, currently, there are stiffer international exams that the private sector pupils can and do take instead. The substandard state teacher problem persisted until at least 1980. There is thus a 15-yr+ cohort of same, who have reached positions of influence AND WHO ONLY NOW ARE HAVING TO RETIRE.
    * An Oxbridge college – Porterhouse was it? Tried to separate public and grammar school entrants’ college lounges.
    ** (1)Grammar disappeared from language teaching….too hard for some teachers?
    (2) The need for calculus was all but eliminated from ‘A’ level physics, so for example geometry could be dispensed with too. This also stopped any significant teaching about the physics of light I gather. A gap has opened up between ‘A’ levels and good 1st year Uni courses.
    (3) There was a also a smokescreen thrown up by ‘New Maths’…Boolean algebra and other things that most folk will never need.
    (4) The rigorous teaching of History – dates, treaty terms, significant personalities and their failings etc has I gather largely gone. How are kids thus to learn the lessons of history?
    I rest my case.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    It isn’t really about education. Even the state has ways to provide a good education, but not what you get from public schools. The parents are buying privilege for their kids. A leg-up, a good start in life. Gove’s examples prove it. Every damn useless one of them had had a good start in life through connections, privilege, snobbery. Every one of them may claim not to approve and to be interested in fairness (note Monbiot’s article in reply to Gove) but they all send their kids to private education if they can. The fact is (and this is as uncontestable as the law of gravity) that you can’t stop rich people buying privilege for their kids. That is what being rich IS. Getting better things for yourself and your family.

    You might try to find a way to diminish the effect of that privilege. To let some folks in who do not have the connections. But what happens is that they pull up the ladder behind them, every time. They get into the political/media class and go native. It isn’t just about good education, it is about the way humans operate. It is universal. Us and them. That does not absolve those who control education from providing the best schooling available, and that is what we need to fix. In every classroom. Accept no mediocrity, insist on far better standards. But you won’t stop the rich buying privilege.

  • TomTom

    “the disaster the Socialists made of the education system in this country “

    I wonder what Margaret Thatcher actually did as Education Secretary; and Keith Joseph – ah GCSE in place of O-Levels – National Curriculum to impose Uniformity – turn over Examinations to Private Companies to milk £320 million a year off schools for worthless exams tied into textbook sales from the FT business group

  • Axstane

    telemachus wrote the following incredibly doctrinaire snippet “The function of education is not just to feed the intellect but to promote liberty equality and fraternity”. Shades of Montesquieu and the mass murders of the French Revolution!

    Nowhere have I ever heard such as the aims of education. For the record the best way to promote Equality is to give all the very best education that they can handle – it will vary according to individual ability.

    As for Fraternity – that is idealistic Communard bullshit.

  • michael

    We need the brightest kids in the top jobs , middle class bright kids do tend to stick to ‘cerebral’ occupations where as poorer bright kids tend to have more of a nothing to lose and everything to gain mentality. Everybody (especially the educationalists) knows that when the latter are well educated, they more often than not are the ones that make the great captains…route 1, a SELECTIVE GRAMMAR SCHOOL so that that inherent spirit is nurtured with a competitive edge from day one.

  • Trevor H

    Daunted by the parlous condition of state education in our area, after decades of left-leaning local authority interference and ineptitude, we spent a fortune on private education for our two children. We made many sacrifices and will never recover from the financial outlay. It was worth every penny, they both continue to benefit from it hugely in their working lives.I admire Gove intensely for what he is trying to do for state education, I just hope he is allowed to succeed.

  • Nicholas

    “Our society is sorely in need of social equality. A government to promote this and growth is long overdue.”

    But Labour have been singing this song since at least the 1960’s and have had plenty of time in power to achieve it, especially during 1997-2010 when they had a massive majority.

    So when will they finally arrive? Of course, what everyone knows who has rumbled socialism is that they have “achieved” the complete reverse. Their policies have actually destroyed social mobility and deflated aspiration, creating instead tension and divisiveness, as well as the rather nasty makings of a police state founded on political correctness. Mrs Thatcher had them to a T when she described the “equalising” process as dragging everyone down to the lowest common denominator. Churchill correctly referred to Socialism as “a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue (being) the equal sharing of misery”.

    Oh, the old “equality and fairness” soundbites still sound good, and they still get away without being pinned down on their horrendous record of failure, presumably because people fall for the idea that they mean well. But not just failure – destruction. Socialists have destroyed the fabric of society in Britain. There was plenty wrong with it when they first started but the baby has been well and truly thrown out with the bathwater.

    Socialism is a creed, a cult, that works only on the basis of “struggle” against oppression and inequality, whether real or more usually imagined. It is an “insurgent” ideology which in power and supported by an overwhelmingly socialist public sector faces the contradiction of being the establishment by desperately finding someone else to blame for all the misery it causes. The most fantastic thing is that having perpetrated this con for nigh on 60 years they still appear get away with it.

  • Fatbloke on tour


    What is the split in SpeccyLand?
    How many of editorial staff went to a state school?

  • Fatbloke on tour


    Now what benefits does a private education bring?

    Some say it is –
    30% – the accent.
    30% – the self confidence
    30% – the connections
    10% – good education based on small class sizes.

    If a private education is so good and they have a stranglehold on power why is the UK failing and in decline?

  • Fatbloke on tour


    Interesting stuff from the Smurf.
    As you would expect instead of taking on the privately educated elite he is trying to replicate it in the state sector – instead of a top rank of 8% he is looking to make it 16% and everything will be OK.

  • nicolas

    I think Mr Gove is one of the highlights of an otherwise dull Coalition. He should continue his good work.

  • PJH

    To advocates of Grammar (and advocates of segregated schools based on religious doctrine). All Grammars do is add an additional strata and act as a barrier at the age of 11. Further segregation in education strikes me as retrograde. Rather we need to work with what we have got and make it work better. I concur that vested interests (as in all sectors) will protect the status quo, but in the 1940s the BMA resisted the NHS now they defend it; in the 2010s the education establishment resist change; but the times indeed “they are a changin’.
    Enjoy this:‏

  • Geoffrey Dron

    Wilshaw’s speech was even better.

    Hopefully, the teaching unions are now on the run.

  • EC

    If it weren’t for independent schools there would be very little education left in this country. There is a difference between education and cramming for exams. Unfortunately even independent schools have been forced to sacrifice some of the former for the latter in the pursuit of even higher exam grades.

    Why? Because when it comes to university admissions, even under a Conservative(ha!) government, children from independent schools are discriminated against by official sanction – in favour of state school pupils with lower grades.

    A shocking state of affairs, but in our topsy turvy brave new world that is Gramsci’s dystopia then there’s the new definition of “equality” for you.

  • Sir Everard Digby


    I would be interested to know how poor education standards help ‘cohesion’ and ‘social equality’ Quite the reverse I suspect.

    Gove is suggesting that a good education takes one a long way and the statistics appear to support that conclusion.

    What I am sure of is that calling an attempt to raise general education standards ‘elitism’ indicates you have the opposite view. Interesting.

    You might as well throw in Thatcher, Ashcroft,bankers,tory toffs,squeezed middle and any other meaningless one-word replacements for intelligent discussion.

    Or you could give up commenting.

  • newrealist

    Gove is doing a great job – long may it continue.

    But please, no more talk of Grammar schools. It is wrong to make a life defining selection at age 11 – many children have been pushed artificially above their level and many are just late developers.

    The original Comprehensives had the best idea. I attended one and can vouch for their effectiveness. It had just been formed by the amalgamation of a Grammar and Secondary Modern. There was a broad range of subjects and other activities such as a school orchestra and both football and rugby teams – which would not have been possible for each school in isolation.

    But the key was streaming. You could quietly find you own level and be stretched – without the disruption of changing schools. So there were de facto Grammar, technical and vocational streams – that pupils could move between to best suit their needs.

    It managed to produce many elite standard pupils who went on to the top universities – but managed to maintain a school spirit within which every member of the community was valued.

    The combination of a broad intake and internal streaming and specialisation is surely the optimum model for state schools.

  • telemachus’

    Sorry to see you as a cheer leader for this education secretary who is clearly promoting elitism rather than social equality and cohesion.
    The function of education is not just to feed the intellect but to promote liberty equality and fraternity.
    Our society is sorely in need of social equality.
    A governrnment to promote this and growth is long overdue.

  • Judy

    Welcome and correct as Gove’s speech is, he has unfortunately sold the pass in practical terms and caved in to the head teacher unions by dropping his proposal to introduce no-notice inspections.

    As Christina Odone said earlier this week, good schools have no cause to fear snap inspections. Only those with something to hide want a couple of days to hide their failures.

    48-hour notice inspections did wonders for Sharon Shoesmith’s Hackney Social Services, which OFSTED initially rated “good”. Such inspections by the Care Quality Commission also gave a clean bill of health to the terrifying care homes reccently exposed in Panorama programmes.

    Far more children are likely to have their education blighted by being in mediocre, inadequate schools that will be able to cover their tracks with notice inspections than will be helped by the new free schools, which only a small percentage of the UK’s pupils will attend over the next 10 years.

    It’s only snap inspections that really enable the inspectors to see a school as it really is.

    The Spectator should be breathing down Gove’s neck on this issue. Speeches are all very well. It’s actions that will establish how much he will actually succeed in turning our inadequate state education system into the one we all want to see.

  • tom jones

    Gove is spot on and “But, seriously, we know we are making progress when we hear the opposition from vested interests — from those in trade unions who put adults interests before children’s” perfectly sums up how I feel about education in this country.

  • 2

    Are teachers in private schools members of the NUT, or is it the AMMA (as it used to be when I started teaching).
    Privatise every school, they all have to work within the same national quality framework which is not as it was in the 70s when some private schools were very bad indeed. We don’t know enough about the organisation of good private schools, investigate and then emulate.

  • Paul Maynard

    If he wants to be really radical, why not make all schools independent, introduce a voucher system and remove the dead hand of local authorities. Huge savings and higher standards will result.

  • Axstane

    Regrettably – and I have recently met and spoken with several of them – too many teachers have lost sight of why the schools were established. They have come to believe that they are there for the benefit of the teachers.

    That is the main reason why our state schools performamce is, on balance, pretty dreadful. Some shreds remain in the few grammar schools remaining.

  • Andrew

    Well done him! At least someone in the government is doing a good job.

  • Keith

    Go ve!

    The only member of the government who stands for anything.

  • Mudplugger

    And of course, as the Tories look for a new leader post-Leveson, post EU melt-down, maybe they need to address this imbalance by having an adopted, scholarship boy…..

    But Gove’s a good act, probably the best of the current cabinet crop, so why not ?

  • Tom

    A brilliant speech, which should be read by everyone and deserves wide reporting.

    The bold attempt to turn around the supertanker’s 40 year journey toward educational disaster almost makes up for the coalition’s shortcomings.

    And it is wonderful to see that the Conservatives are actually trying to do something about social equality rather than the drivelling nonsense from Labour, whose main priority as usual is to featherbed special interest groups like the teaching unions who are one of the prime culprits of the mess in the first place.

  • Man in a Shed

    So where are the new grammar schools then ? Only UKIP have them as a policy.

  • kayste

    I’m learning to love this man.

  • Cynic

    And if the same stats had been done for the time when grammar schools were the norm, I wonder how they would differ.

  • Andy H

    Well at least one Tory is up for the fight.

    If it were not for the fact that it would distract him from sorting out the disaster the Socialists made of the education system in this country I would advocate he stand for leader.

    However the task of repairing the social engineering failure of Labour is much too important..

  • daniel maris

    Well there’s one very easy way to address this problem…bring in education vouchers. That way you can create a connection between the private and state sectors.

  • telemachus’

    So dear Mr Gove why do you want to create elitist academies and free schools?

    All these will do is drive up the price of property around them.

    Have you examined the property and business intersts of those who back your elitist schools?

  • DeeJay

    Parents and grandparents make financial sacrifices to privately educate children when there is really no alternative. The motivation is purely practical and is not driven by ideology or class based politics. It is the last resort and parents are willing to out aside luxuries such as holidays, new cars and flash clothes, in order to give the family the best start in life . That they are driven to go such lengths should tell us something about the current standard of our state education which, im opinion, has been in decline for forty years to my certain knowledge.

  • It doesn’t add up…

    Gove will be successful when teacher training colleges start producing teachers who share his vision. That won’t happen while they are the responsibility of Willetts and Cable. Give higher education to Gove, and sack Willetts.

  • Robert Eve

    Good for Michael!!

  • anyfool

    The majority of them will deny that the school made any difference to their lives, i cant remember that odious man David Mitchell mentioning his privileged start in life when decrying the posh boys in the tory party, he truly is a hypocritical turd of the first order, maybe private schools should be shut down when you consider the amount of two-face dipsticks they turn out.

  • Rob C

    Private schools thrive because they are more detached from the state. They do better because they have to prove their worth to earn their ‘audience’ and believe in what they are doing. The state ethos of ticking the boxes created by some bureaucrat will never inspire in the same way. All schools should be private and the state should issue education vouchers to parents for them to contract education. Higher value vouchers for more difficult or disadvantaged children with a performance related bonus for the schools.

    We currently pay around £8K for primary education – from a joint annual salary of around £30. Worth every penny and sacrifice because our kids only get once chance and I don’t generally regard the state as capable of the job. Despite the efforts of some very hard working teachers, the EA’s and unions guarantee a sub-standard job! Until that aspect is fixed, Gove is trying to defy gravity.

  • Ralph Lucas

    Indeed, but he still won’t let the old direct grant grammars rejoin the state system, which lots of them want to do on a needs-blind basis as Peter Lamplwill confirm, and which would give real impetus to righting the imbalance.

  • toco

    Gove is well on the way to making a real change for the better in education and should be congratulated.Future generations will derive considerable benefit from his efforts irrespective of background or ethnic origin.Well done indeed!

  • Jannie Geldenhuys

    All power to his elbow.

    If only he had the courage to go the whole hog and reintroduce grammars.