Why Gove Was Absolutely Right About State & Private Schools. (And Yet Not Correct).

4th February 2014

Yesterday Michael Gove made headlines when he asked why it was that state school students didn’t enjoy all the extra-curricular opportunities offered in private schools. And remarked “We know England’s private schools are the best independent schools in the world. Why shouldn’t our state schools be the best state schools in the world?” 

Naturally, people got angry. Peter Wilby remarked that one reason why state school students didn’t have the same sports facilities as those at Marlborough College is because sport field parity would require more than half the English countryside. Likewise, a number of commentators pointed out that when the average private school tuition is 11k per child and the average state school gets approximately 4.5k the reason for the discrepancy might be pretty obvious.

But all of this huffing forgets that Michael Gove is also a politician in a “pre-election year”. Hence, the main message of his speech seemed to be – After many years of neglect by Labour, schools are now doing well, but they’re still not as good as private ones.  If you plan to get elected in the next 18 months, that’s the right message to run with. And here’s why…..

The narrative Gove builds in this speech does three things:

  • First, it makes out that things were bad in 2010. This is important for making people think that Labour did a terrible job in education.
  • Second, the ‘now’ (which Gove has uttered a lot recently) makes it seem like things have suddenly got better. As if Gove has saved the day.
  • But, third – and this is the very important bitGove needs to keep open the idea that everything is not yet solved. So he uses the private sector as a mythical place of ‘betterness‘ to which we can aspire. Note also the use of the word ‘private’ rather than independent. As if softening us all up to the idea that schools being ‘a bit more private’ is the inevitable key to quality. And finally, this stroking of the private school ego keeps the wealthy onside. After all, who wants to shell-out for their children’s education only to be told it was a pointless investment?

Whether or not you believe Gove narrative will come down to your view of how bad things were in 2010 and how good they are now.

On some of his points Gove’s speech yesterday was fair enough. The system of forcing poorly performing schools to convert into academies has meant in some places where local authorities were proving inadequate and where councillors didn’t have the guts to close terrible schools, those long-term failing institutions are now thriving under new management. In other places, however, the irresponsible wrenching of schools from a community, in a forced conversion process that seems akin to randomly throwing the staff into the hands of unprepared and sometimes callous providers, has not ended well. (Earlier LKMco research has shown that ‘turnaround’ of performing schools seems to work less than half the time).

Still, if Gove can get a handle on academies and free schools, if he can make the system transparent and clear and make it so that England finally has a common system across all areas for opening successful schools, monitoring all schools and closing bad ones, that really would be something. And what he has set up hints at that. And then falls enormously short. Unfortunately no measures at all were announced in this speech which might help set it straight.

The EBacc also remains an overblown feat. More students doing Science GCSEs rather than BTECs is a good thing, but adding GCSE science to the headline performance data for schools seemed like an inevitable move even back in 2010. (Remember Labour created the “5 GCSEs including English & Maths” basket). That Gove and Liz Truss trumpet increases in language, history and geography GCSE figures shows HE is pleased with the change. But it’s an entirely arbitrary one when considered against declines in art, technology and religious education. They say potato, I say “they’re all much of a muchness“. It’s a lot of hot air for nothing.

There’s one point Gove isn’t right on though. And it’s the argument that English private schools perform so much better than state schools. In fact, as esteemed researchers Ron Glatter and Dylan William both take delight in pointing out: once you take social background into account the OECD evidence is that state school pupils outperform private school pupils by a “considerable margin”. 

So there you go.

Was Gove “right” to target his message in this way? Sure, he’s a politician 18 months from election. It’s what he’s supposed to say. Was what he said accurate? He’s a politician. 18 months from election. I’ll let you decide the answer to that one.