In a farcical drama that has mirrored the Chancellor’s calamitous Budget announcements in March, Michael Gove’s plans to restructure the education system have been a PR disaster for the government. If there is one way to ensure sensational headlines and widespread criticism for a proposal you already know to be reasonably controversial, it is by leaking the story to the Daily Mail. The leak was unfortunate – perhaps the work of a disgruntled civil servant – the government reaction, however, was appalling.
The fact that Nick Clegg claimed he had been completely unaware of the proposals speaks volumes of the unity (or lack of it) within the Coalition. Gove’s unashamed Conservatism is incompatible with the ideological orientation of this Coalition, and therefore it is highly likely his plans for the education system are to be included in the Tory manifesto at the next election rather than being phased in by the current government.
…an elite went on to take O-Levels and a life of prosperity.
But it is the terminology behind Gove’s announcement that has provoked the angry condemnation. It seems that any discourse citing O-Levels and grammar schools is automatically condemned for provoking imagery of dark days of inequality and unfairness where children were powerless to resist the strong arm of the state marking them, from a young age, in an act that would define their income and social standing for the rest of their lives. There are countless people who would argue this is exactly what the grammar school system achieved, abandoning thousands of children every year to sit the CSE and a future lacking prospects, while an elite went on to take O-Levels and a life of prosperity.
And yet there can be no denying the success of grammar schools themselves. Not only did they provide an exemplary education that puts our current system to shame, but they enabled social mobility on a level that has never been seen in this country since. A child could gain an opportunity to defy today’s much quoted cliché that their post code would come to define their earnings and lifestyle. Grammar schools recognised potential, and facilitated the realisation of this potential.
…succeed if they do not have a degree…
There is no doubt that the current education system has to be reformed. Students are taught to pass exams; they are not educated. GCSEs may have got easier, (although students might not agree), and the UK is falling behind the rest of the world in education terms. Key skills such as languages and arithmetic are being ignored, and too many people are going to university, racking up a vast student debt and failing to find a job when they graduate. The problem is endemic and has to be confronted.
And yet the problem with having a two tiered education system such as Gove’s proposals is that it all too easily accepts that fact that true equality in society is something that can never be realised. Gove is a realist who faces up to blatant and uncomfortable truths. Society can never possibly accommodate a generation with the same high yielding ambitions and desires. People should know that they can succeed if they do not have a degree or even A-Levels. Specific circumstances should determine whether people go to university, it should not be the status quo. Society functions through a hybrid of circumstance and opportunity. Class or socio-economic status exists and has to be faced up to.