Micahel Gove means well, but just doesn't get it

Educational reforms mean nothing if the kids skip class. Plus, Nancy Dell'Olio on feminism, and death metal disappointment

D. J. Taylor
Sunday 24 March 2013 01:00

It's a mark of the abysmally low esteem in which Michael Gove is held by opponents of the Government's educational policies that the last time I wrote something even vaguely complimentary about him, an email came winging in to suggest that the two of us must have been at university together. Presumably an old college friendship was the only thing which could have explained this regrettable tendency to mark Mr Gove out of 10 and end up giving him more than three.

In fact, I have met Mr Gove only the once – at a Department of Education seminar convened with the somewhat quixotic aim of encouraging teenagers to read fat Victorian novels – and I came away from it thinking that, whatever else may be said about him, he means well. The old, unreconstructed, egalitarian left will always dislike him, for implicit in his determination to give every child a chance to succeed is an acknowledgement that, at some point, intellectual distinctions are going to have to prevail, and that you can't have an A-level course or a university entrance system that doesn't eventually separate the sheep from the goats.

At the moment, Mr Gove is getting it in the neck from a wide assortment of critics. The historian David Cannadine recently contributed an immense piece to The Times Literary Supplement about the "missed opportunities" of the latest set of curricular reforms. Only last week, there came a volley of complaints from academics and headteachers about the descent into "rote learning" and endless lists of spellings, facts and rules. Naturally, no one wants schoolchildren returned to the world of Mr Gradgrind – although the 15-year-old I recently met who had never heard of the English Civil War could probably have benefited from a session with that exacting taskmaster. The real problem facing the education system, on the other hand, is that the difficulties that beset it are almost entirely beyond Mr Gove's remit.

What price education, in a country whose controlling tendencies are fundamentally opposed to the old ideals of learning, informed discussion and rational debate, and whose popular culture is founded on the glorification of stupidity? By coincidence, these recent attacks on education policy coincided with news that 40,000 parents were prosecuted last year for failing to ensure their progeny's attendance at school. What is Mr Gove supposed to do about them?


To those of us brought up on "Peter Simple", the stately fulminations of Peregrine Worsthorne and Anthony Powell's fortnightly book reviews, The Telegraph's colonisation of territory more usually occupied by the Daily Mail is sometimes very difficult to bear. In its defence, The Telegraph has caught up with the comic potential of Nancy Dell'Olio, and the interview which that lady was coaxed into granting to its feature section last week was one of the funniest things I have read in ages.

Among other grave topics, Miss Dell'Olio touched on feminism: "The whole secret of seduction is for the woman to balance taking control of the situation with letting men think they are doing the running," she grandly declared. "British feminists have it all wrong: they want to emasculate men and end up alienating them. Italian feminists play men like a fiddle to get their way."

All this sounded uncannily like a variation on the arguments used by the substantial proportion of late-Victorian women who did not want the vote, on the grounds that female influence was better exercised covertly through the agencies of the dinner table and cradle. It also reminded me of A E Coppard's celebrated short story "Weep Not My Wanton", in which a drunken labourer, wandering over the Sussex Downs with his family in summer twilight, berates his small son for losing a vital sixpenny bit. Eventually, the boy detaches himself from the succession of clipped ears, steals back to his mother and quietly hands over the coin that will buy the family supper rather than drink for the father. No doubt stealthy feminine influence has its virtues, but most women would probably have preferred the sixpence up front.


Arts world setback of the week was the news that a veteran death metal band has been forced to cancel a one-off performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum amid concerns for the historic fabric of the building. Napalm Death, whose compendious oeuvre includes such albums as Scum and Mentally Murdered, were set to collaborate with Keith Harrison, the V&A's ceramics resident, who planned to create a speaker system filled with liquid clay. This would have cracked and fragmented as the sound reverberated inside it, creating a "unique live installation".

Although this particular artistic happening had the benefit of official sanction – until the authorities instituted a safety inspection – it was hard not to be reminded of the notorious event staged at the ICA in the early 1980s, at which the German "industrial" ensemble Einstürzende Neubauten ("Collapsing New Buildings") produced a brace of pneumatic drills and announced their intention to tunnel through the floor in the hope of reaching the ancient passages that are supposed to connect Whitehall with Buckingham Palace. Catastrophe was only averted when an ICA employee managed to get to the off switch in time. Clearly, Napalm Death, Mr Harrison, and their deep bass, tile-shattering artwork have some way to go.

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