Bruce Anderson: Everyone should have the chance to flex sharp elbows

The Tories have worked out the answer to Britain's educational problems
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The Independent Online

Toryism is suffused with scepticism; few Tories have ever described themselves as idealists. This is even true of intellectual Tories, partly because they have to devote so much effort to remedying the damage caused by left-wing intellectuals. So Michael Gove, the Shadow education secretary, is a rare exception. He is happy to acknowledge his idealism, on both foreign and domestic matters. The most stalwart surviving neo-Conservative in British politics, he still believes in the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East. He also believes in an equally daunting ideal: the spread of education throughout British schools.

According to some recent figures, the gap between the attainment of pupils from comfortably-off families and those from poor backgrounds has widened over the past 10 years. It would be naive to assume that this news blighted the recent festivities in the average Tory household. In many cases though not in David Cameron's circle there would have been a feeling of weary resignation: what d'you expect with all these comprehensives? This might have been followed by harrumphing about bringing back grammar schools to rescue a few bright refugees from the state system.

Michael Gove was neither weary nor resigned. He was angry, and this had nothing to do with cynical electoral calculation. A classic Scottish lad o'pairts, he rose from modest circumstances with the help of a meritocratic education. He would like every child in Britain to enjoy the same chances as he had. An attractive, generous ambition, it is heartfelt.

It's always interesting to watch a politician march into his opponents' traditional territory. While the invader is familiarising himself with the landscape, there can be problems with rhetoric. Mr Gove recently encountered one of those, when he referred to the sharp-elbowed middle classes. He was giving a description, not a moral judgement, and was speaking the truth. Any sensible middle-class parents will want to ensure that their children receive the best possible education. But the problem with using a striking phrase is that it can become detached from its context and then create unwelcome resonances.

For years, middle-class bashing has been the left's favourite bloodsport. Middle-class values, decencies and aspirations are derided, while those who uphold them are blamed for every social ill. This is especially true in education. Advocates of comprehensivisation such as Roy Hattersley often sound as if the emotional force which drives them has less to do with helping the majority of pupils than with stamping out any schools which still provide a good education. The Hattersleyites rightly identify the middle classes' sharp elbows as a major obstacle on the road to universal mediocrity. Mr Gove may have unwittingly brought them aid and comfort.

I was recently in Edinburgh: a city founded on middle-class aspiration. It is as if the sharp elbows of long generations of the Edinburgh bourgeoisie have formed a coral reef, upon which rests the city's grandeur. But there are limits to the power of those elbows. Partly because many middle-class parents have given up the struggle against the sullen, class-obsessed, excellence haters who dominate Scottish state education, Edinburgh now has the highest percentage of private school pupils 28 per cent of any major city.

These school fees are paid out of taxed income by people who know that a proportion of their salaries is confiscated to fund failing state schools. For many of those parents, the fees are a considerable sacrifice. For each child, they have committed themselves to more than a decade of indulgences forsworn and regular appeals to the bank. We should not only salute the Edinburgh middle classes' willingness to invest in the next generation. We should commend their example.

The Tories' educational reforms which Michael Gove hopes to implement, would give parents much more choice, while making it easier to establish new schools to meet parental demand. The money would follow the child. In the longer run, this would lead to a full-scale voucher system and a world in which the distinction between fully independent schools and state-funded independent schools would gradually be eliminated.

That is the long-term answer to Britain's educational problems. But there are two pre-conditions for success. The first is at least three terms of Tory government; it will take time to put the new system in place. The second is an evolution of the human frame, so that sharp elbows cease to be a middle-class monopoly. Reforms based on parental choice cannot work unless parents make the effort to choose. In a few years' time, Michael Gove, or his successor, will have to inform all parents that they too will have to use their elbows if their children are to be freed from the chains of education mediocrity.

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