Alf Young: Wha’s like us… a lesson in privileged status

Education Secretary Michael Gove. Picture: PA
Education Secretary Michael Gove. Picture: PA
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SCOTLAND prides itself on enjoying a more egalitarian society than our neighbours, but inequality is entrenched, writes Alf Young

MICHAEL Gove is a member of a coalition cabinet which, when it was first assembled in May 2010, boasted 23 out of its 29 members all already millionaires. So claimed the Daily Mail at the time. Gove, adopted by his Aberdeen parents when he was just four months old, is a journalist. He has written columns for this newspaper. Now he is Conservative MP for Surrey Heath and the Westminster government’s secretary of state for education. His wealth comes largely from his two homes in London and in his constituency.

Earlier this month Gove made a speech at Brighton College to mark that school being named UK Independent School of the Year. He lavished praise on a “superlative” establishment and its headmaster Richard Cairns, “one of the most visionary leaders in education today”. But then the minister decided to make some waves.

“Around the cabinet table,” he acknowledged, “a majority – including myself – were privately educated.” Gove won a scholarship to Robert Gordon’s College and went on to study at Oxford. “It is remarkable,” he continued, “how many of the positions of wealth, influence, celebrity and power in our society are held by individuals who were privately educated.”

He came up with a list. The cabinet. The shadow cabinet. The bench of the Supreme Court. The Bar. Medical schools. University science faculties. Those at the helm of FTSE 100 companies. In the boardrooms of banks. Playing cricket and rugby at international level. Half of UK gold medallists at the Beijing Olympics. In Hollywood, on Broadway, on our TV screens. In comedy and popular music.

At the head of the BBC and in the editor’s chair in many London newspapers, including the Guardian. Indeed every editor of the Guardian for the last 60 years had been privately educated. “But then,” he went on, “many of our most prominent contemporary radical and activist writers are also privately educated. George Monbiot of the Guardian went to Stowe. Seamus Milne of the same paper, attended Winchester. Laurie Penny of the Independent was a product of the very school he was speaking in.

“We live,” said Gove, “in a profoundly unequal society. More than almost any developed nation ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress. Those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege in England than in any comparable country. For those of us who believe in social justice this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.”

With what he called “the scars of inequality” running that deep, Gove acknowledged they were not being addressed “with anything like the radicalism required”. It was an astonishing critique, given that it was coming from a member of a party that proposed, in opposition, to ease dramatically the burden of inheritance tax and has, in government, agonised over how quickly it could remove Labour’s 50p levy on the incomes of the highest earners.

The main reaction came from those Gove had chosen to mock. George Monbiot suggested the minister had “one heck of a brass neck”. Gove, he retaliated, believed in social justice the way he might believe in the Higgs boson. The answer to the problem was to shut all private schools down. Laurie Penny suggested removing their tax exempt status first. What he was really doing, she suggested, was reminding pupils at her former school “what team they’re on”.

This whole row passed virtually unnoticed here in Scotland. Education is, of course, devolved. Gove’s remit stops at the Border. He made clear in his speech he was talking about England. Does that mean the underlying issues he was raising have no currency here? It is certainly true that private schools play a smaller role in Scotland than they do down south.

In 2009 there were 30,507 pupils attending independent schools in Scotland, representing 4.31 per cent of all pupils. The equivalent figure in England is some 7 per cent . But in some parts of Scotland that percentage is much higher. According to the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, last year 19.51 per cent of all pupils in the City of Edinburgh were educated privately. In Clackmannanshire it was 15.76 per cent , in Perth and Kinross 11.55 per cent and in the City of Aberdeen 14.41 per cent .

If only secondary education is compared, the number of parents choosing the private route rises significantly. In Edinburgh 24.87 per cent of secondary pupils are privately educated, in Clackmannanshire 23.59 per cent , Perth and Kinross 17.51 per cent and Aberdeen 17.09 per cent . Remarkably, given how data hungry it seems to be in other areas of life, the Scottish government decided, following a consultation on the scope of these statistics in September 2010, to cease collecting and publishing statistics on independent school numbers. That’s why the overall Scottish comparison I’ve included above dates back to 2009.

Does that mean SNP ministers see no issues here? Is Scotland exempt from the scars of inequality and entrenched privilege that, on Gove’s analysis, run deep through every aspect of English society? Is Scotland already a model of fluid social mobility? Having lived and worked here continuously since the 1940s, all my varied experience tells me we are not.

As far as I know there aren’t too many millionaires around the Scottish cabinet table. But material inequality is on the rise here in Scotland as it is across the rest of these islands, while social mobility has gone into reverse. We have become so used to a political discourse that dwells relentlessly on whether Scotland would be richer or poorer, in or out of the United Kingdom, that we never talk about the growing extremes of wealth and poverty right under our noses.

Which schools parents choose to educate their children in are only part of a much more complex set of forces that determine life chances. As the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility at Westminster made clear recently, the point of greatest leverage for social mobility is what happens from birth to age three, primarily in the home.

I’ve no doubt Michael Gove’s main objective in raising these issues in the way he did was to buttress his case for the reforms he is already embarked on within the state school sector south of the Border. If only state schools in the poorest areas could all perform as well as Brighton College, the problem would be solved.

But, as he himself acknowledged, that school’s success is based in part, on aggressively recruiting and generously remunerating talented individuals from a range of backgrounds to place before pupils what their headteacher calls “the best teachers in the land”.

How is the whole state system, in an age of cuts, expected to emulate that? But at least, down there, they are talking about such challenges. In Scotland, all I can hear is a deathly silence.