Michael Gove: You Ask The Questions

The Tory spokesman for children, schools and families answers your questions, such as 'How will you improve state schools?' and 'Did you get a first from Oxford?'

Monday 10 August 2009 00:00 BST

Do you think it is okay for the taxpayers of the country to follow the example of MPs, such as John Bercow, to use clever dodges to avoid tax?


I have to confess I haven't made a study of John's tax affairs. But MPs should abide by exactly the same laws as everyone else.

Why does no one advocate introducing proper grammar school-style education into top streams in comprehensives? This should keep the grammar school brigade happy and, because children develop at different rates, avoid the pitfalls of the old two-tier system with selection based on one exam. And are you going to raise the bar for entry in to the teaching profession? We should demand a 2.1 or better for secondary-level teachers, as in Finland. Depending on supply, this may involve paying more so should keep the unions happy. Ian Parsonson (by email)

You are absolutely right, Ian. I am a strong believer in setting and streaming within comprehensive schools. More children should be taught by ability in more subjects. And more children, overall, should be pursuing a traditional, "grammar-style" academic education in any case.

I am also an admirer of Finland's success in getting the most talented graduates into teaching. They recruit teachers exclusively from the top 10 per cent of graduates and it's no coincidence they have Europe's best state schools. We have committed to raising the bar for entry into the teaching profession here.

We have said that, as a start, anyone who wants to get on a taxpayer funded postgraduate teacher training course should have, at the very least, a 2:2. We have also said that the entry requirements for all new primary school teachers should be higher; instead of accepting just a C pass at GCSE maths and English, we should insist on at least grade Bs.

Which current Labour politician do you most admire, after Peter Mandelson? CHRISTINA THOMAS (by email)

The Labour politician I most admire is Gisela Stuart, for talking sense on almost every issue I can think of.

You've been given plenty of opportunities to say how wrong you were to support the Iraq war. Doubtless you'll tell us that the thriving democracy there is evidence that people like you were right to support the invasion. Or do you in fact regret your militaristic millenarianism? Paul Bradley (by email)

Over six years on from the invasion, an insurgency led by al-Qa'ida has been defeated and a nation assumed to be incapable of stable self-government is maturing fast into a thriving democracy. It was the incredible bravery of British and American soldiers that bought the time necessary to turn the tide. I hugely admire, and honour, their sacrifices for freedom.

Didn't William Dalrymple do a pretty effective job of demolishing any claim to credibility or authority you have on matters of Islam or foreign policy? What's it like being called (in effect) an ignoramus by an expert? Marcus Hutton (by email)

I have great respect for William Dalrymple as a writer but he and I have sharply different views on this issue. Others who are immensely well qualified on this topic have written fluent and knowledgeable rebuttals of William's criticisms of my book, Celsius 7/7. I will not seek to improve upon them here, only to say that I hope most Independent readers recognise the need to respect the good faith of those on both sides of this argument. I would invite all of them to read Celsius 7/7 and make up their own minds.

What's the difference between a conservative and a neo-conservative? Are you more of one than the other? Susan Bloomer (by email)

Strictly speaking, the neo-conservatives were a group of former Democrats who joined the Republicans in the 1970s and 1980s because they believed in a robustly pro-democracy and anti-totalitarian foreign policy. But they differed from traditional US conservatives in supporting the New Deal settlement and an active welfare state.

The term neo-con has since been flung around as a general term of abuse by opponents of an interventionist foreign policy. Since I strongly support such an approach, and want to see the west take more assertive action, from Darfur to Afghanistan, I've been called a neocon. Indeed much worse. Like ignoramus and millenarian militarist. I don't mind what people call me, but the biggest influences on my foreign policy thinking, however, haven't actually been Americans but British conservatives in the tradition of Canning and Churchill.

Why is the Conservative Party not calling for the abolition of top-up fees? Bernard North, Sutton

I am afraid I will have to dodge this question – it is one for my colleague, the brilliant David Willetts, who deals with universities.

As a long time beneficiary of a grammar school education (1950-57) I would ask why any government would wish to abolish such schools. What would you do – specifically – to reverse the decline in academic standards? Dr Peter Smeaton, Chester

I would emphasise 10 main changes. First, recruiting and retaining the highest quality individuals into the teaching profession.

Second, getting Ofqual, the standards watchdog, to fix our exams so they are directly comparable to the world's best. I want our 16 and 17-year-olds to sit exams which are as testing, and as attractive to colleges and employers, as those on offer in Singapore and Taiwan.

Third, allowing state school students to sit truly stretching international exams, such as the IGCSE, which currently only private school students have access to.

Fourth, ensuring Ofsted focuses on the quality of teaching rather than the zeal with which a school complies with irrelevant bureaucratic diktats.

Fifth, reforming the national curriculum to strip out unnecessary accretions and concentrate on providing a stretching academic programme for all pupils to the age of 16.

Sixth, giving teachers new powers to keep order in class, including protection from violence and intimidation.

Seventh, liberating the weakest schools from local authority control and handing these schools over to organisations with a proven track record of excellence.

Eighth, allowing the very best schools to benefit from academy status, and freedoms, providing they use those freedoms to help other, under-performing, schools.

Ninth, encouraging new providers into the state system, as they have in Sweden, by allowing parents to transfer the money the state currently spends on their child's education to the sort of school they really want.

And tenth, reforming pupil funding to ensure more resources are spent on the very poorest – to help reverse the widening gap in our education system between the fortunate and the forgotten.

Should some/any faith schools be tax funded? I personally do want not my money to go to schools that teach the earth is less than 6,000 years old, or that Jews were turned into apes, or that anyone who does not accept the particular faith is hell-bound. Ewart Shaw, Warwick University

Nor do I. My children attend an excellent faith school in London, which has a strong Christian ethos but also offers a broad and inclusive education in the tradition of the very best schools. I want that choice to be available to all parents. No school which went to any of the extremes you mention would be allowed to operate under a Conservative government.

Do you think that the amount of money you are paid to write a column for The Times is obscene? Compared to salaries paid to those who save lives every day, it does seem it, doesn't it? Rosemary Davies (by email)

I think we need to do much, much, more for those, especially our armed forces, who risk their lives for this country and others. And I don't think it's possible to quantify how much we owe those who work in the NHS. As for my own pay, I am happy to leave it to others to decide what I'm worth.

Would education policy be easier to formulate and more in accord with actuality if it started from the premise that there is no such thing as a bad school, only bad parents? Chris Latimer, Walsall

No. The quality of schools matters immensely. You only need to look at what's been achieved by brilliant schools in areas where there's been a culture of low aspiration and educational failure. Whether its the KIPP Charter schools in America, the new free schools in Sweden, Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, Manchester Academy in Moss Side, or Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham in Lewisham, the importance of a good school in transforming disadvantaged children's lives cannot be overestimated.

Everybody in Fleet Street bangs on about how clever you are. Did you get a first from Oxford or not, and why do you think so many of your client press friends have chosen to focus on your brains? Richard Spall (by email)

I'm grateful both for the kind words some people direct my way, and for the excellent education I received. It's my fault, however, that I neither got a first, nor really deserve the generous compliments of others.

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