Jonathan Jones

Gove takes on private school dominance and trade union opposition

Gove takes on private school dominance and trade union opposition
Text settings

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 journalists:

‘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.