If a little learning is a dangerous thing, too much can be lethal. The time comes to consider whether all the decades of intense tuition about the worthlessness of a politician’s ritual denial of personal ambition has fatally misled us. When Michael Gove insists that under no circumstances, foreseeable or otherwise, would he ever accept the Tory leadership, could it be that he means exactly what he says?
Ordinarily, in a world in which every one of us has an A* in Political Disingenuity Studies, this would qualify as one of those enquiries known to Latin teachers, in the distant era to which the Education Secretary longingly harks, as “a question demanding the answer No”. And yet the more one examines Mr Gove, the less ordinary he appears.
He is hardly to all tastes – and, in significant ways, by no means to mine. But his plan to revolutionise secondary education, allied to the impressive speech he made in May about the evil of social immobility entrenched by private schooling, demands the suspension of cynicism for five minutes. In this context, he is a brave, serious-minded and principled figure in an age not notably overstocked with them.
Identifying as persistent a source of national despair as the failure of state secondary education to compete with public schools is the simple bit. Many before him did the same. But where they preferred cosmetic changes to produce superficially attractive results, he embraces the more dangerous option of the face transplant.
Evidently, it is cheap and unfair to categorise the GCSE, as some do, as a multiple choice doddle roughly on a par with the legendary GMTV premium rate phone competition question which asked if the forthcoming movie awards in Hollywood were: a) The Olives; b) The Oscars; or c) The Oswalds? But both the statistical evidence (the slippage in international educational rankings while the pass rates relentlessly went up) and the anecdotal consensus (university teachers moaning about first-year students’ inability to write a grammatical sentence) clearly imply unfitness for purpose.
Judging how well Mr Gove’s English Baccalaureate will work, five years before it comes into effect, is pointless. There is a whiff from his intent to introduce far more rigour into the EBacc, or preferably the Ebacca (which suggests the cousin of Chewbacca, whose death, during an abortive raid on the Death Star, George Lucas left on the cutting-room floor), of educational Darwinism. Only the cerebrally strongest, it appears from the scant detail released so far, will survive.
Eventually, Mr Gove will be judged on more than whether his changes improve undergraduates and the ratio of state/public school students at Oxbridge. Even more important is rescuing the millions doomed to poor literacy and numeracy by the accidents of their birth, and this baccalaureate will mean nothing to them. If his passion for increasing social mobility, however stirring, is restricted to those who appear in the wettest of Tory dreams in revived grammar schools, he will have failed.
For all that, he is at least having a serious crack at dispelling the defeatist gloom that has hung over this area of national life for so long. Exams may be inherently inadequate tests of the intellect, and most of the cleverest people I know can barely rustle up an O-level between them. But since they, like juries and democracy, are the least worst system available, they need to be as reliable an indicator as possible.
Mr Gove’s plan, in part thanks to its 1950s’ twang, is so popular with his own party that only his categorical denials of leadership ambitions (he memorably promised to write a declaration to the effect, in his own blood, on live TV) prevents him becoming Boris Johnson’s only genuine rival to succeed David Cameron in the event of a bus-related accident.
Why someone so able and well-liked is so contemptuous of such a universal political ambition is a bit of mystery. Perhaps it is to do with that Gussie Fink-Nottle face, which seems to simper: “Hark at me, the adopted son of an Aberdeen fish processor, and every inch as superior as the Bullingdon Boys whose social equals I have risen to become.”
That smug fizzog, not one on which you can linger for long without fantasising about the judicious application of a plaice or lemon sole, is ill-suited to this presidential-televisual age. So maybe Mr Gove has taken to heart Dirty Harry’s injunction, issued long before Clint Eastwood’s double act with the chair, that a man's gotta know his limitations.
Another limitation, which of course goes for Boris as well, is his proudly iterated adoration of Rupert Murdoch. It was cute timing that news of Mr Gove’s Ebacca shared front pages with the claim that the News of the World commissioned burglary. If it teaches anything about the morality of the Conservative Party that its two best-loved young lions are the two staunchest defenders of Mr Murdoch alive, it is not an original lesson.
Yet while the Education Secretary would dismiss the subject as just the sort of cushy option he wants to can, I urge him to think again and include Media Studies in the baccalaureate. Taught with the rigour he so admirably champions, it would be a very useful addition to the curriculum indeed.