Our dismal education system means that too often poverty is a life sentence, says Michael Gove. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Schools can be freed from stifling state control

I owe Peter Bazalgette an apology. A very big apology. Peter is the man who brought Big Brother to our TV screens. His genius in spotting the potential of the original show has brought him riches and helped Channel 4 fund years of genuinely creative TV. But at a price I used to think far too high.

I used to write a regular column in the Times and I took advantage of my platform there to denounce Mr Bazalgette for using his undeniable intelligence to exploit the stupidity, indeed more properly the frailty, of others for his own ends. I thought there was a certain cruelty in deliberately contriving a situation in which members of the public would feud, scheme, bully and embarrass each other for our entertainment.

I thought it was wrong of him to tempt young women like Jade Goody to parade their ignorance at prime time, to be laughed at because they’d never heard of ‘East Angular’, to be mocked for their lack of sophistication, so that he, a clever, well-read and urbane Cambridge graduate, could grow richer still.

There was nothing very original in my condemnation. It was, and remains, the default position of the chattering classes. But in joining in the public stoning of Peter Bazalgette, I was missing the real target. And missing a far bigger scandal.

Peter Bazalgette wasn’t responsible for the education system which, after 11 years, tens of thousands of pounds, hundreds of pages of legislation and thousands of pages of regulation, could take an intelligent young girl like Jade and leave her tragically ignorant of her country and culture. Peter Bazalgette hadn’t allowed Jade’s natural curiosity and quickness to moulder and grow neglected throughout her childhood. Peter Bazalgette hasn’t presided over a political system which has seen thousands of girls like Jade see their potential go to waste.

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That Jade was intelligent there can be no doubt. A shrewd and canny businesswoman, she made millions herself before cancer claimed her, tragically young. Anyone who heard her interviewed after she left Big Brother could see she was a quick study, alive to the new opportunities unfolding in front of her, savvy in a way which marked her out as someone with real talents.

Jade’s talents helped her acquire significant wealth during her brief life. And once she discovered she was terminally ill, all her wealth was devoted to one end. Educating her own children, so that her boys could have all the opportunities denied her at school. She wanted money so that she could send them private. And in the pathos of her dying wish we can see the real tragedy of our society. Jade had learned one very profound lesson from her time at school. If you want the best for your kids you have to pay for it.

Jade’s is a very British tragedy. In most other advanced nations, the numbers who choose to pay for their children’s schooling are tiny. And in most of those nations, opportunity is far more equal. England has one of the most stratified and segregated schooling systems in the world, and the very poorest are those who lose out most.

The poorest 15 per cent of children are those eligible for free school meals. In any given year, four out of ten of these children leave school without a single proper pass at GCSE. In an average year there are 80,000 children eligible for free school meals. Last year just 45 of them made it to Oxbridge.

In England, as Jade knew only too well, poverty is, all too often, destiny.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can learn from other countries, countries like our own in so many ways, but where education systems do make opportunity more equal.

Like Sweden, where you don’t have to be rich to choose the school you want. Or Alberta in Canada, where state schools go out of their way to attract your children, deliberately seeking to seduce you into placing your child in their care. Or New York, where charter schools, such as those run by the Knowledge is Power Program, take children from the poorest ethnic minority homes and guarantee that over 80 per cent of them are on course to elite colleges.

In all of these countries, state schools behave like the best private schools in our country, tailoring what they offer to parents’ demands and pupils’ needs, offering prospectuses which stress high academic standards and rich extracurricular activities, with the flexibility to pay good teachers more and enjoying exemplary discipline and pastoral care. The only difference between their state schools and our private ones is they are non-selective, entirely free and socially comprehensive.

How has it been done? Well, crucially, by getting politicians out of the picture. In Sweden, 15 per cent of young people are now educated in schools which the state funds, but does not run. These free schools, like the charter schools which exist in America and Canada, are able to offer a richer curriculum and a range of qualifications which are not on offer in those schools still run by the centralised bureaucracy. This freedom to innovate has driven up standards. Not just in the new schools. But in already existing schools, which have been compelled to raise their game in the race to attract pupils.

As Ed Balls was forced to acknowledge in a speech he gave two years ago, when parents ‘vote with their feet’ to go to a good new school, that creates ‘pressure for improvement in other schools too’. And the academic evidence, from studies conducted by Stockholm University, Uppsala University, Sweden’s National Agency for Education, Harvard, MIT and Columbia, all points to the beneficial effects of freedom for schools and choice for parents on school standards.

It’s because I’m angered by the waste of talent in this country, upset by its unequal distribution of opportunity and dismayed by our failure to learn from abroad that I am so anxious to reform our education system. And it’s because I trust the common sense of parents more than the conventional wisdom of the establishment, because there are millions who, like Jade, know exactly what they want for their children but are currently denied any choice, that I want change.

This week I have been putting parents who want a choice, who want a new small school run by teachers who know the children’s names and who want higher standards in their neighbourhood, in touch with the organisations, both here and abroad, that can help them. If I am fortunate enough to have the chance to serve in government, it will be my job to give every parent, and every neighbourhood, access to a great school which is accountable to them, and not to me or any other politician. For the next government, the point of winning power should be to give it away. In education, as in so many other areas, it’s time we left the long shadow cast by Big Brother far behind.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated