The Conservative English Education Minister, Michael Gove, gave a provocative speech to the Social Market Foundation, a UK think tank, earlier this month.
Mr Gove mentioned a range of people to exemplify his argument that ‘progressive education’ had let down the working classes. The lack of academic rigour in classrooms had been a disservice to such young people, who unlike those from higher classes, couldn’t rely on a helping hand to access the best careers.
Mr Gove made the following analogy between the Opposition Party and fictional upper class members of a popular TV series set during and after WWI:
“Labour, under their current leadership, want to be the Downton Abbey party when it comes to educational opportunity. They think working class children should stick to the station in life they were born into – they should be happy to be recognised for being good with their hands and not presume to get above themselves.”
This comparison is unhelpful and it would be more productive for Mr Gove to focus on how WWI opened up social mobility for women. He would presumably expect this of any teacher in an English maintained school using his proposed new draft National Curriculum which includes at pp.170-1 (it is a very long document!) “the suffragette movement and women’s emancipation” as well as “universal suffrage”, both significant happenings in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Ironically children in academies and free schools, which are directly funded by Mr Gove’s Department, will not need to cover this topic.
One person he didn’t refer to in his speech was Emily Pankhurst.
We all know her as a historical figure who fought for women’s rights despite being imprisoned and pilloried. Female domestic servants, one of the largest professions at the time, were arguably far more important to the running of Downton Abbey than its aristocratic owners. More women would end up leaving service and acquiring independent means over the following decades. The message that women deserved the same rights as men was an important one that transcended any class issues. It was the same social ‘truth’ that Abe Lincoln had used to justify emancipating African-Americans from slavery half a century before.
So let’s forget about re-introducing class war Mr Gove and concentrate on what matters in society: giving every young person the opportunity to maximise their potential through the means that is most suited to their particular abilities and aptitudes.