Attack is the best means of defence so Michael Gove earns top marks for coming out fighting in his speech at the London Academy of Excellence today. He has reinvented himself as the champion of social justice and opportunity to distract from his controversies with Ofsted!
Gove has gone further than Harold Wilson’s ‘grammar schools for all’ by promising ‘private education for all’ – or at least state schools as good as private schools. His many detractors will point out this is impossible without equal pupil-teacher ratios, facilities and funding, let alone pupils’ very different types of cultural capital.
Even if Gove’s advocacy of social mobility sounds powerful, things have changed since the 1950s and ‘60s. Then a significant number of post-war working-class young people did indeed benefit from grammar schooling (which only mimicked the private schools). They did so through being able to move up alongside middle-class children as the economy expanded and white collar, managerial and professional employment opportunities continued to grow. How much educational benefit they got from the sort of curriculum that Gove now wants to re impose is an entirely different question.
In today’s labour market however, the majority of young people are likely to end up worse off than their parents, regardless of the type of curriculum they follow. In fact, evidence from the most recent UKCES skills survey ( http://www.ukces.org.uk/news/Press-releases/2014/Jan/SKILLS-SHORTAGES-ACCELERATE) suggests that employers who do take on school, college and university leavers, are generally happy with their educational attainment. It also confirms that the main reason for persisting high levels of youth unemployment is that there is too much competition for too few jobs with employers giving preference to more experienced adults.
With few other opportunities, it isn’t surprising that university applications from 18 year olds are also at their highest ever. Especially from young women for whom there are even fewer labour market options.
So Gove’s policies, which seek to complete a Great Reversal of comprehensive education reforms, are much more about using secondary schooling to enforce social discipline on young people. But imposing practices and sanctions from the past – like writing lines and picking up litter – or having to attend after school activities is more likely to have the opposite effect.
It may be the case that after the economy went into recession in the 1970s with more or less permanent youth unemployment thereafter, comprehensive schools didn’t really improve the relative chances of working-class young people. But at least by encouraging greater social mixing, developing a new type of curriculum and changing the way it was delivered, comprehensives did try to make education more relevant to young people’s needs and schooling a more legitimate form of activity not to mention a more enjoyable experience.
Gove’s Great Reversal is given a spring board as a result of Labour complying with a large part of his programme. So it’s left to teacher unions, whose members are already subject to further attacks on conditions of service and pay, to promote real alternatives.