At the height of the last government, an online petition was launched calling for the then education secretary to resign. “Remove the elitist Michael Gove from office” it screamed. “Gove who has experienced private school education and Oxbridge is completely out of touch”.
Like so much cyber activism, it was nonsense. For as today’s GCSE results will likely show, it is the poorest – not the rich – who have gained the most from Gove’s education revolution.
A momentary look at the principles behind the reforms should be enough to dispel any notion they’re elitist. With ever more schools becoming academies, independent from local authority control and able to set their own priorities, ever more parents now have the choice over how their children are educated that was once only available to those wealthy enough to afford private school.
There is a growing body of evidence that the reforms are driving up standards too. Free schools, often set up by local parents, have been tarred as middle class endeavours, diverting resources and even fuelling segregation. Yet a 2015 report by the think tank Policy Exchange found they are eight times more likely to be located in the most deprived areas than the most affluent, and that the fresh competition introduced by a new free school drives up standards in underperforming schools nearby.
Equally, the introduction of a more rigorous curriculum for those schools still under local authority control, and the axing of thousands of low level GCSE-equivalent qualifications, have not “abolished childhood” (as some claim) but should further close the gap between top-performing public schools and the state sector. It’s not elitist to expect children to receive qualifications that pass muster with the best in the world.
Gove hit upon the truth that liberating people to do their best within a environment of excellence offers the greatest gains for those who don’t have rich parents. And this has relevance for other parts of the public sector too.
While Jeremy Corbyn demands a greater role for the state, putting his faith in political elites, the Tories have a golden opportunity to apply elsewhere the principles so successfully put into practice in education, and let a hundred flowers bloom.