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Sketch: Anchors needed in this maelstrom of quotations


Could this have been an act of sabotage by the outraged burghers of bucolic Stedham, deep in the Sussex countryside?

As Michael Gove was yesterday describing the plans of a south London academy to send 600 inner city pupils as weekly boarders to the village as “a bright ray of hope”, the actual lights in the House of Commons went out.

Given the row has already cost the party membership of a Tory councillor who warned of a “sexual volcano” and suggested the school’s Pakistani pupils would not “rise to the top”, vengeance could not be ruled out.

An unfazed Gove recited Newman’s “Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom”. And this was a mere fraction of a quotathon in which Tory backbenchers, in homage to Gove’s curricular policy, vied with each other – and the Education Secretary himself – to show off their knowledge of English literature and history.

First up was David Ruffley, quoting Ted Hughes’s remark that when children “know by heart 15 pages of Robert Frost or Swift’s Modest Proposal they have a… great sheet anchor in the maelstrom of linguistic turbulence”. He urged Gove to ensure “there is a role for rote learning in the schools of tomorrow”.

Gove has a touching habit of sorrowfully accusing his opponents of “partisanship” as if he himself was somehow above the sordid cut and thrust – while at the same time mixing it with the best of them.

Labour’s Stockton North MP Alex Cunningham asked if he expected schools to close as the result of a new free school in the (Tory-represented) south of the borough. The pity, said Gove, was that Labour had stood in the way of those working “to improve education”. If Cunningham would only “haud his wheesht”, he would better serve the children of Teeside.

Much loved by Scottish teachers, the expression roughly translates as “belt up”. It’s unlikely to catch on in schools south of the border. But it’s a safe bet it will in the Commons, where no one has yet condemned it as unparliamentary.