Gove’s “Liberation Theology” Speech

John Rentoul

gove Goves Liberation Theology SpeechOne reason Michael Gove will never be prime minister is that he cannot resist a good joke. His speech to the Social Market Foundation yesterday was a joy to read, partly because his mockery of right-on attitudes was so pointed.

Those who enjoy wealth and power in our society – however bohemian their lifestyle, artistic their circle or ostensibly progressive their politics – over and over again find themselves choosing schools with the most traditional of structures and academic of curricula for their own children.

Timothy West and Prunella Scales, Polly Toynbee and Alan Rusbridger, Will Self and Deborah Orr, Mick Jagger and Bryan Ferry, Keith Richards and Keith Allen, Gary Lineker and Richard Curtis all chose to spend their money on rigorously academic schooling for their children in the private sector. As did, of course, Stella McCartney and her husband Alasdhair Willis after complaining that there was no decent state school in their particular stretch of Notting Hill.

This is mostly unfair, as these people, apart from Toynbee (and possibly Rusbridger by indirect editorial responsibility), have not criticised traditional education or private schools as far as I know. But it is quite funny.

And the speech is a brilliant and passionate argument for “conservative” schooling as the instrument of “progressive” working-class advance, cheekily quoting Antonio Gramsci in his support. And he describes this commitment to giving all children the kind of education driven by the high expectations that middle-class intellectuals take for granted for their own children as this Government’s “liberation theology”.

As Ian Leslie argues, equally brilliantly and passionately, on his Marbury blog, Gove seems to bring out some people in a form of derangement. He deliberately provokes educational conservatives, because it is fun, but because his arguments are unanswerable this seems to drive them to a particularly irrational state.

As Leslie points out, the idea that Gove is an ideologue reckless with evidence is just rubbish, and his Social Market Foundation speech is a detailed rebuttal of it. The argument for the English baccalaureate (although why it has to be called that I don’t know) is powerful.

Just recently, Gove announced the end of the AS-A2 split in A-levels, which means pupils will no longer have to take exams every year at 16, 17 and 18. I don’t agree with him on resits; I thought modern liberal Conservatives believed in giving people a second chance.* But I do agree on course work and only wish he would do something about the silliness of personal statements on Ucas forms too.

Yet all this – not to mention his tactful but firm commitment to the principle of all-ability state schools – is treated as if it were a return to the strap, the workhouse and aristocratic elitism.

Leslie asks:

What is it about Gove that bends even sensible minds out of joint; that drives intelligent people absolutely batty with rage? His programme is really just a continuation of the last government’s, just speeded up. I don’t remember the left burning effigies of Alan Johnson.

There’s some weird personal stuff going on that I can’t even begin to explain (much like Blair, the very sight of him seems to make some people’s eyes flash red and the green pen to jump out of its scabbard).

But I think the deeper problem is that Gove came into government to get big things done, and he is doing them. We’re not used to that in this country. We find it downright offensive. And that explains a lot about the mess we’re in.

Update 1: Leslie has posted a new comment, which is also good, here, which refers to this blog post by Daniel Willingham, the Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia.

*Update 2: Sorry, the position on resits, or retakes as they call them, is more complicated. The new rules prevent module retakes before the final exam. I am not sure about that.

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  • AB

    Gove gives good speeches with serious content showing wide reading and thought (his response to Miliband’s attempt to co-opt Disraeli was the only one from a frontline politician that actually took the attempt seriously rather than paraphrasing the “I worked with Disraeli…You’re no Benjamin Disraeli” line).
    In an age of short, sharp and generally nuanceless messages he’s doomed to being attacked without foundation and without him retorting in kind. Attempts to take the Govean battle into Twitter just lead to things like the Observer “splash” which might as well have been written in Etruscan for all that it would mean to most people. It is much easier to caricature his reforms as killing off culture than to address whether he might have a valid argument for saying that he is providing children with greater ability to access culture.
    That’s why his opponents pick on him – he’s not going to fight back in the tabloids and speeches like this one won’t be read by many voters. As most of his reforms are actually popular anyway, he doesn’t need to fight dirty to defend them and I’m glad he doesn’t.

  • takeoman

    “Humiliated Grove forced to drop EBacc”, it would seem he isn’t getting the ” big things ” done.

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