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John Rentoul

John Rentoul: Labour's lucky. Michael Gove's a one-off

The Tory Education spokesman scores top marks for stealing Labour's clothes with calls for educational reform

There have been two common responses to the plan to retrain bankers as teachers in six months. 1: Six months? How can it take so long? 2: Bankers? What can these people teach our children? By instinct, I tend towards the first response. Especially when provoked by Christine Blower, acting general secretary of the National Union of Vested Interests, making up any old nonsense to oppose change: "Teaching is not a profession that can be picked up at the drop of a hat. There needs to be the time for reflection and the capacity to undertake in-depth theoretical study."

And I was gratified that the extreme form of response 2, a woman on the BBC's Question Time who said that bankers were an unsuitable ethical model for pupils, drew no support on a programme where they will clap the slaughter of the first-born if you get the intonation right.

The boring truth is that most people would need at least six months' training to become effective teachers. But there are many people in any walk of life, and banking is no different, who are particularly suited to teaching, and the system should surely be flexible enough to get them into the profession as quickly as possible.

Gordon Brown and Ed Balls should be congratulated for not letting a good crisis go to waste. The contraction of the applied numeracy sector, otherwise known as financial services, is a one-off opportunity to deal with the shortage of maths teachers.

More than that, though, the downturn is a paradoxical chance to put rocket boosters under the reforms that have been gaining momentum in recent years. Higher teachers' pay and schemes such as Teach First have already raised the quality of the teaching profession. Teach First fast-tracks some of the best graduates into teaching as a short-term option that often turns into a long-term commitment. This is a huge exercise in social engineering, one of the little-noticed tectonic changes that could be one of the big legacies of the Blair-Brown years. But it has to go further, for years and years.

It is well known that one of the most important factors in the high standards of schools in countries such as Finland and Singapore is that their teachers tend to be recruited from the best graduates. And better teachers need to be supported, in my view, by an intensification of Tony Blair's reform programme – the focus on school leadership, greater diversity, smaller schools.

That is why Michael Gove's speech last week was significant. The Conservative schools spokesman is like one of those boys on motorbikes who have been putting a sledgehammer through the plate glass of Oxford Street jewellers recently in broad daylight. Gove has driven up to Labour's shop front and raided its finest language – right in front of bemused onlookers.

"For the modern Conservative Party, education reform is a moral crusade," Gove said, quoting Harold Wilson. He spoke of "equality" and his desire to "restore faith in the capacity of people working together to achieve more through their common endeavour than they can as isolated individuals", quoting Blair's rewrite of Clause IV. And he spoke of "the fierce urgency of now", although that was Martin Luther King's rather than strictly Labour property.

Meanwhile, Ed Balls, who also spoke of "the moral purpose that drives our many great school leaders" at a headteachers' conference on Friday, reminds me of the Oxford Street shop manager, who was quoted as saying: "I was told you can't break that glass."

Luckily for Labour, Gove is the only one who breaks the glass every time. For most of the Tory shadow Cabinet, grabbing the centre ground of public service reform is a hit-and-miss affair. One Labour source tells me that their focus groups are "very worried about Tories and cuts", which is why the shadow Cabinet is "trying to hug us close" on public services. Labour ministers credit Gove with being rigorously consistent in this, while other Tories – often even including the leader himself – are too easily diverted by opposition for the sake of it.

In his attempts to steal the centre ground, Gove is assisted by Labour's internal politics. It was noticeable that the bankers-to-teachers proposal was reported first in The Sun with Gordon Brown's name attached to it; published in a Cabinet Office document by Liam Byrne, the public service reform minister; and defended in the media by Jim Knight, Balls's deputy. Balls himself did not take the lead, because he wants to be Labour leader. This makes him sensitive to the feelings of teachers, who make up a large proportion of what is left of the Labour Party membership.

The six-month teacher-training plan is, though, a small part of a larger story of education reform. For the moment, the economic crisis has eclipsed that whole story. But behind that shadow many of the reforms are at last beginning to show signs of real, sustained progress.

Education standards are higher than ever, but in many schools, and for many pupils, they are still too low. And, as Gove pointed out, with some remarkable statistics of the kind that Brown and Blair used to deploy to such good effect in opposition in the 1990s, they are too unequal. "In the independent sector, which educates just 7 per cent of children, more students got three grade As at A-level than in the entire comprehensive sector," he said.

Long ago, in opposition, Blair said to a journalist who lived in Islington, north London: "Give us two terms in power and you will be able to send your kids to secondary school in the borough without worrying about it." Three terms later, most Islington parents are still worried. But the trajectory of state schools has been bent round in the right direction.

The point being that the downturn is a chance to drive the reforms to a new level. Higher pay and prestige for teachers, lower pay and prestige for bankers. Because of Gove's determination to hold the centre ground against the right wing of his own party, Blair will eventually succeed, whatever happens at the next election.