Amol Rajan: Proper education will do much more for the poor

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The Independent Online

One of the great social reforms of our age was announced at the weekend. From 2014, children as young as five will be required to rote-learn poetry and recite it in class. They will also be introduced to multiplication tables, mental arithmetic and fractions in their first two years of school, in what was wrongly described on the front page of yesterday's Daily Telegraph as an overhaul of the curriculum.

The verb "overhaul" means to take apart in order to examine and repair. This is more of a restoration, to principles of academic rigour from which our state education system has spent decades in flight.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, is largely responsible for it. I hate to be sycophantic to him, because the former Times journalist is the recipient of more flattery and propaganda from journalists than any other member of government. Alas, some of it is justified. On rote learning of poetry alone, his restoration could do more for social mobility than decades of educational egalitarianism, by firing the imaginations of children who would otherwise be inoculated against great poetry, and thereby preserving and promoting the one thing England has done better than any other nation: literature.

It is important to understand the context in which this is taking place. In August 2010 I wrote, in a column for i's sister paper The Independent, "Of all the lunacies intrinsic to the era from which we are emerging, none has been as corrosive to national life as the systematic dismantling of academic education for the poor." One of the things for which I will never forgive the last Labour government was its devotion to vocational training, frequently substituting that for proper academic subjects. This policy was sold as a benevolent gift to the poor, while in fact a terrible attack on their opportunity for a fulfilled life.

It is true that both Mr Gove and David Willetts, the Universities Minister, believe vocational training should be an important part of our education system. But they have placed a proper and profound emphasis on the wiser interpretation of education, which is the transmission of bodies of knowledge – subjects – from one generation to the next.

It is this social ritual, not vocational training, which will do most for our poorest pupils; and in enforcing the habits of real learning from a younger age, Mr Gove is pressing his case as a great social reformer. Call it "back to basics", Govism, or even an "overhaul": we seem at last to have an Education Secretary who believes in education.