In shaping education policy I have been influenced by many people… But two particular individuals have influenced me more than any others. The Italian Marxist thinker – and father of Euro-Communism – Antonio Gramsci. And the reality television star Jade Goody.

Let me explain my admiration for Jade first.

When she first appeared on our screens in Big Brother Jade was regarded as paragon of invincible ignorance. She was derided and mocked because she thought that Cambridge was in London. On being told that Cambridge is in East Anglia, she assumed that to be abroad, and referred to it as ‘East Angular’. Her other misconceptions included the belief that Rio de Janeiro was a person and not a city.

It seemed to me at the time, and seems to me now, a sort of double cruelty to have mocked Jade for these errors. Deriving entertainment from another’s misfortunes is wrong in itself. But in any case, her lack of knowledge was not her fault but the education system’s.

Because there was no doubt that Jade was intelligent. She exploited the notoriety she had earned to make herself a ubiquitous television and magazine presence, earning huge sums in the process and becoming in due course far wealthier than most of her detractors.

And Jade’s wisdom did not extend merely to making money. She also knew what mattered more than simply material wealth. At a tragically early age Jade was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Terminally ill, she had to make plans for her two beloved boys. So she husbanded her earnings for them. She might have been tempted to set up a trust fund for them so that when they reached adulthood they could have enjoyed themselves royally. But instead she used her money to send them to the most traditional, academically demanding prep school she could find. So they could enjoy the best education reality TV could buy.

Because Jade knew that the most precious thing she could bequeath her children was not money but knowledge and the best guarantee of their future happiness was not the power to indulge whims with cash but the power to choose your own future through education.

Jade’s ambitions for her children – academic success – were admirable. But they are not unusual. Far from it.

Why are the Harris academies in Peckham and Bermondsey so massively over-subscribed? Why do so many parents in the poorest parts of Birmingham want to send their children to the Perry Beeches Free School? Why are the Tauheedul Girls and Boys schools in Blackburn so popular?

Because parents – especially poorer parents – want their children to get up and get on. And that means acquiring a proper rounded rigorous education. In the hope that they can choose to go to university.

In the recent Millennium Cohort Study, 97% of professional parents and 96% of mothers who identified themselves as working class said they hoped their child would go on to university. The overwhelming majority of parents know academic excellence when they see it, and want it for their children. The idea that there is a significant number of parents who lack ambition for their children, who are not aspirational, who scorn book learning and are hostile to academic excellence is just not true.

So what is holding children back? Well, for an analysis of those forces which do stand in the way of liberating young people from the chains of ignorance, I would recommend close attention to the work of Gramsci.

Antonio Gramsci was a powerful critic of the power structures of his time which entrenched the dominance of traditional elites in Italian life. And one of the greatest concerns he had was that one – increasingly fashionable – ideology which was being sold in Twenties and Thirties Italy as progressive – would only end up reinforcing the inequalities and injustices he hated.

The ideology he so feared in inter-war Italy was what we have come to call – with tragic inappropriateness – progressive education. Progressive educational theory stressed the importance of children following their own instincts, rather than being taught. It sought to replace an emphasis on acquiring knowledge in traditional subjects with a new stress on children following where their curiosity led them. And that was usually away from outdated practices such as reading, writing and arithmetic.

This approach was deemed democratic – because it replaced the rigid formality of the traditional schoolroom with the teacher as authority figure and placed everyone in the classroom – teacher and child – on the same footing as co-creators of learning.

It was called progressive because it moved away from a set hierarchy of knowledge – literary canons, mathematical proofs, scientific laws, musical exercises and artistic traditions – towards a new emphasis on ‘learning to learn’. And one did not need to study a subject discipline to acquire these abstract skills.

Progressive educational theory had its roots in the teachings of Rousseau and other Romantics, and their belief that man was naturally good and corrupted by civilisation – and became the dominant world view of many of the institutions of the educational establishment during the last century. It even recommended itself to Mussolini’s education minister Giovanni Gentile.

But Gramsci saw that – far from being progressive or democratic – this new approach to education risked depriving the working classes of the tools they needed to emancipate themselves from ignorance. As he wrote, ‘The new concept of schooling is in its romantic phase, in which the replacement of “mechanical” by “natural” methods has become unhealthily exaggerated….previously pupils at least acquired a certain baggage of concrete facts. Now there will no longer be any baggage to put in order…the most paradoxical aspect of it all is that this new type of school is advocated as being democratic, while in fact it is destined not merely to perpetuate social differences but crystallise them in Chinese complexity.’

Destined not merely to perpetuate social differences but to crystallise them. He could have been describing what has happened in Britain in the last forty years. The nation which invented the concept of meritocracy, where the idea of the career open to talent had propelled social and economic progress has seen social mobility stall. And then move backwards. Wherever you look – Cabinets or Shadow Cabinets – newspaper editorial conferences or FTSE 100 boardrooms – the nation’s galleries or bishop’s palaces – the positions of power and influence are overwhelmingly held by the privately-educated or the children of middle class professionals. The social differences which existed in our society before the Nineteen-Sixties have – in all too many cases – not just been perpetuated but crystallised.

This is an extract from Michael Gove’s speech to the Social Market Foundation, which you can read in full here.

Tags: Education, Jade Goody, Michael Gove, UK politics