Michael Gove recently hit the headlines when he chose to send his daughter to, shock-horror, a comprehensive school. This made him the first ever sitting Conservative Education Secretary to do so. Now, as these stories always do, it received a lot of coverage, fuelling our obsession with where politicians send their kids to school. There’s nothing a journalist seems to love more than making Tony Blair or Nick Clegg squirm with questions about their personal choices when it comes to schooling. Buried underneath all this though are some serious questions about the divide in the quality of our nation’s schools.
It’s a damning verdict of the current state education system when the people responsible for running it go the extra mile to ensure their own children don’t have to endure it. For all of his faults, at least Gove has taken the plunge and chosen to lead by example. Although his reforms have been torn apart by professional bodies across the sector, he still has enough faith in his ideas to send his own children into the fray.
Too often we see politicians from every party refuse to give avoid the system, afraid to simply say that they just don’t think that it’s good enough. We hear rehearsed answers explaining that it’s a choice, and one that they had a great deal of difficulty making. But the reality for most parents is that there is no choice at all. Taking on the extra expense is not an option for 80 per cent of the country. Nick Clegg defended his own decision to avoid the state sector by explaining that the best comprehensives were difficult to get into. But therein lies the problem; that sending your kids to some state schools simply isn’t worth the risk.
Now this doesn’t mean that private institutions are evil, or that parents who send their children to them are somehow immoral; they’re not. It means that we have to bring our publicly funded education system back up to the standard it needs to be to compete with the best private schools. Despite his symbolic gesture, Gove’s reforms have really damaged the sector and dragged down teacher morale. Even if Labour do win the next election, they will spend enormous amounts of time and energy tinkering or reversing his changes before embarking on a reform program of their own. But what then? Would this be followed by another Conservative government that reverses Labour’s changes and implements another set of reforms?
What we need is a radical change in direction on how MPs and ministers formulate policy for our schools. Consensus is a dirty word, especially in Westminster, but the time has come for decision makers and their opposition to make concerted efforts to work together. It’s only through collaboration that we can start to make improvements that stand the test of time instead of poorly thought through reforms that are first in line to be reversed by a new government. I know it’s a lot to ask of MPs who seem more interested in re-enacting Punch and Judy than doing any work together but if we want to end the controversy that surrounds a politician’s choice to shield their child from state schooling, they have to start working together now.