The Shadow Education Secretary, Andy Burnham, was not wrong when he gently chided Michael Gove with giving almost everyone an advance glimpse of his sweeping blueprint for schools – except his fellow Members of Parliament. When Mr Gove finally presented his White Paper to the Commons yesterday, there was not much that, one way or another, had not received a preliminary airing. Even if there was little novelty left, however, Mr Gove deserves credit for the sweep of his ambition and his grasp of the detail. You can disagree, to a varying extent, with what he set out – as Mr Burnham quite justifiably and effectively did – but you cannot deny the consistency of what the Education Secretary has in mind.
His diagnosis in most respects is sound. The last Labour government used to like citing international education tables when they showed England's schools performing well, but rather neglected them when they indicated the opposite. And while it is not necessarily true that England's pupils have been doing worse – it is more likely in fact that other countries are doing better – international competition, in today's world, must be the yardstick. If our schools have slid down the rankings, there is some catching up to do.
Mr Gove is also right to single out the disparity in educational opportunities for rich and poor in our school system. It is wrong for poor children to be denied a decent education because of their family circumstances or where they live. The tiny number of pupils from poor families gaining places at the top universities is nothing short of a disgrace, and deprives the country of much-needed talent. All this is well known; but it was heartening to hear these defects identified and addressed with an intensity of passion that would not have shamed an Education Secretary from the Labour left.
Mr Gove's blueprint for change offered a combination of back to basics, including stricter discipline, shifting the balance between pupils and teachers, and restoring competence in English grammar and spelling as a requirement in exams. A particular welcome move is his intention to bring back foreign languages, after Labour's misguided decision to make them optional after age 14. All this will appeal to educational traditionalists – among teachers and parents alike.
Whether it will also, as Mr Gove insists, give teachers more freedom to decide how to teach, compared with the prescriptiveness that was the effect of many Labour policies, remains to be seen. There would certainly appear to be a danger that only the small print changes, while the stultifying rigidity of central diktat remains. There may also be a risk, as Mr Burnham noted, that the gap between academic and vocational education widens, with vocational being treated as second-class, despite this country's acute skills shortage. This is something that will need to be watched.
It is in his attention to the calibre of teachers and their training that Mr Gove may potentially make the greatest difference. Teachers can reasonably complain that their training has been buffeted by the winds of politics and fashion almost as much as schools policy in recent decades. But there is no doubt either that many other countries demand more in terms of academic attainment from their would-be teachers than we do, and that the status and quality of teaching, partly as a consequence, are higher.
Mr Gove has some commendable ideas here, such as a Teachnext scheme to augment the highly successful graduate-scheme, Teachfirst, and the recruitment of military veterans. With the public sector overall set to shrink, this is not a bad time to make entry to teaching more selective. Change on this scale, though, is bound to face resistance. Mr Gove must gird for a fight.