MICHAEL Gove may prove to be the most radical and successful Education Secretary of modern times.
It isn’t that he is cleverer than those who went before (although he has a formidable intellect), it isn’t that the idea of giving schools more freedom through the Academy and Free Schools programmes is particularly original either: what gives hope about Gove is that he is clearly so passionate about what he is doing.
Speaking out last week against the “ideologues who are happy with failure – the enemies of promise”, he was actually angry with those who have been happy to tolerate and excuse failure in our state education for so long.
As he went on to say: “If you’re poor, if you’re Turkish, if you’re Somali, then we don’t expect you to succeed. You will always be second class and it’s no surprise your schools are second class”. This, he said, was a result of “the bigoted backward bankrupt ideology of a left-wing establishment that perpetuates division and denies opportunity... an ideology that’s been proven wrong time and time again”.
Some powerful ideas are at the heart of the revolution that is being driven forward in England’s schools.
First is the refusal to accept failure: bad schools left unchallenged can blight the lives of generations of children.
Second is the belief that good schools flourish when governments interfere least.
Third is the confidence that most parents, however poor, whatever their ethnic background, want their children to have the best possible start in life.
The key to raising standards, therefore, is to give parents more choice, not simply to expect them to put up with whatever local school politicians choose to give them.
But if we are so determined to reject ideology and to champion good schools of whatever sort, it looks increasingly odd that the Government remains determined to veto one type of school that everyone knows works well.
The BBC’s Grammar Schools: A Secret History, the second episode of which is screened tonight, once again reminded us of the many bright kids from poorer backgrounds who have realised their potential through the grammar schools.
As Michael Portillo wrote in the Daily Mail: “The paradox today is that no major political party would dare to bring back grammar schools, yet where they still exist, such as Kent or Buckinghamshire, no front-rank politician would dare to advocate their abolition, because they are so cherished by parents. Why won’t any political party champion grammar schools? I owe mine everything.”
Of course, it is not just parents who currently benefit from grammar schools who support them. Opinion polls show massive support for more grammar schools which are seen as beacons of excellence in a system that is all too often marked by mediocrity.
We now have 40 years of evidence allowing us to compare the performance of comprehensive and selective areas and the picture is clear.
There are good comprehensives, but they are often in the leafiest areas and admit pupils from catchment areas defined by the highest house prices.
Left-wing critics like to suggest that grammar schools are “socially selective” but conveniently ignore the Sutton Trust’s findings that the best comprehensives are more dominated by the middle classes than grammars.
Overall, selective areas (grammar and high schools together) get better results at GCSE and A-level than comprehensive areas, they offer more rigorous subjects and get more youngsters into top universities.
The tragedy is that if parents despair of state schools, those who can afford to will vote with their feet. In Camden 25 per cent of parents go private, in Hackney 19 per cent, and in leafy selective Bromley it is less than nine per cent. In the Manchester Borough of Trafford, part of which I represent (with probably the best state education in England), it is five per cent.
Mr Gove rightly champions academies as “an evidence-based, practical solution”. I agree, but so are grammar schools.
Few people would advocate a massive top-down reorganisation requiring communities to offer academically selective schools alongside all the other specialist schools that have been created in recent years.
But if Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the coalition are really bound together by an instinctive belief in “localism” – that communities know better what is good for them than the man in Whitehall – then the way forward is clear.
Michael Gove has already lifted the prohibition on expansion of existing grammar schools, even allowing them to expand into new campuses. Now he should allow the same freedoms nationwide.
If the Government allowed schools to select a proportion of their intake and if they allowed new free schools to open as grammar schools, the world wouldn’t change overnight. However, more neighbourhood comprehensives might develop an academic specialism and a more rigorous ethos, more coasting schools would be challenged, more bright children in our inner cities might find the opportunities that today are too often available only to those who can afford to go private.
Ironically, contrary to the cherished view of the “ideologues who are happy with failure”, we would also see middle-class families which have fled the state sector bringing their children back into the fold.
With admirable passion and real determination to challenge failure, Michael Gove has unleashed the forces of freedom and parental choice. That choice should be real; it should include more academies – but more grammar schools too.
Graham Brady is a grammar school campaigner and Conservative MP for Altrincham and Sale West.