Will the Tories Give us the Schools We Deserve?

The Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Michael Gove, and the former Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead, discuss the Conservatives’ reform plans with Daniel Johnson, the Editor of Standpoint

Dialogue Education UK Politics Westminster
Chris Woodhead and Michael Gove 

Daniel Johnson: I’d like to start by reminding you, Michael, that Chris wrote a piece in Standpoint last summer in which he put some rather trenchant points, for example that even under your proposed radical new schemes for allowing parents to set up new schools on the Swedish model, many things under a Conservative government would still be the same, as far as we know. Such schools would still not have the right to control admissions, or select on ability. What will be different under a Conservative government and how bad is it now?

Michael Gove: Things are worse than many people acknowledge, but I think that across the English educational system there are some remarkable examples of success. The changes I want to bring involve learning from those examples of success. The most successful parts of the educational system in England are those schools that are independent, and I don’t just mean those that are fee-paying. If you look for example at the success of the best Academies or of City Technology Colleges, those schools are state schools that have been liberated from central and local bureaucracy. I’m talking actually about comprehensive schools, but the crucial thing about them is not their intake but their independence. They have the ability, for example, to depart from the National Curriculum and they can recruit people from a broader pool. Independent fee-paying schools make a point of selecting teachers not because they’ve been through a particular training course, but on the basis of deep subject knowledge and their capacity to become great teachers in due course, if properly mentored and supported.

Our changes would be dramatic in that we would significantly increase the number of schools that are independent from central and local bureaucracy. We would say to all schools rated outstanding that they would have the opportunity in effect to acquire all these freedoms. We would also, at the very bottom of the pile, take failing schools out of local authority control and hand them over to organisations with a track record of running schools successfully. This would ensure that these schools are run in accordance with principles that have been successful elsewhere. This would mean that they would be free to depart from the National Curriculum, free to hire people who have a deep subject knowledge because they come from industry, academia or the professions. Likewise, they could hire people from the services, who could provide the degree of pastoral care, discipline, leadership and support that you need to complement teaching. Schools would also be free to offer more rigorous exams. Chris has articulated superbly the concern that lots of people, parents and professionals, share about the devaluation of exams. There are some examinations — the International GCSE, International Baccalaureate, the Cambridge Pre-U — that are more rigorous, but state schools can’t offer some of these for a variety of reasons. We would allow all schools to offer them. 

The other crucial thing is that all of these schools would have control of the funding that is currently used by local authorities and quangos. Chris has used the phrase “the Blob” to describe that group of people, whether they are local authority advisers or quangocrats, whom others have characterised as “the educational establishment”. They are a group of people who exercise a debilitating influence in two ways. First, they absorb money which is best spent in the classroom on hiring better teachers or giving people access to books or proper practical experience. Second, they continue to argue for, and insist on, an educational philosophy that runs counter to what almost of us would understand as “liberal learning”. By making sure that money is spent on schools rather than those individuals, you’ll no longer have apparatchiks demanding that teachers conform with a centrally-set list of political objectives. Instead, you’re more likely to have teachers capable of communicating their enthusiasm to the next generation and parents will be pleased to see their money is spent on that. If they’re not happy, then they’ll be free to move their children to new schools that share their educational priorities.

DJ: Chris, are you impressed by this? Do you think that the Conservatives could take on the educational establishment and win?

Chris Woodhead: Much of what Michael says I approve of completely. Will, though, the Conservative government take on the educational establishment and win? At the very least, the jury is still out on that question. I’m not sure that Michael or anyone else understands just how difficult “the Blob” is to fight. You talk about the independent or quasi-independent state schools having the freedom that explains their success, but there are 24,000 schools in the country, the majority of which have to follow the National Curriculum, determined by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. What, Michael, are you going to do about that issue? What are you going to do about the Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted), because even if you give schools the freedom to teach whatever they want, they’re still going to have to be subject to inspection that can threaten their very survival. There are big practical questions which we need answers to before we know whether you’re likely to succeed or not.

MG: Previous Conservative administrations have tried, I think some of them have moved things forward. I’m a great admirer of what Ken Baker did. But it’s also the case that quite a lot of the time in the past Conservative rhetoric has not been matched by achievement. So Chris is quite right and parents will be quite right to be sceptical.

CW: Do you believe that the Conservative government should have a National Curriculum?

MG: Yes, but it should be different.

CW: Why?

MG: Good schools with strong leaders can depart from the National Curriculum successfully. The more strong schools with great leaders that you have, the greater degree of curricular freedom there can be. But I think that parents can have a right to expect that children by a particular age will have grasped or mastered a particular body of knowledge in certain disciplines. The problem with the National Curriculum is that you have two huge volumes with all sorts of appended documents which lay out not just what children should know, but how they should be taught. There is a detailed programme of study. Moreover, much of what they are expected to know is not, for the sake of argument, algebra by a certain age, but the social importance of mathematics or the history of mathematics, which is all peripheral. What parents want is a curriculum that is drawn up by people who are genuine subject specialists, who are saying: “We expect that at the age of seven, a child should be able to read with this fluency of reading and have a basic knowledge of these islands, a child of 14 should be familiar with these sorts of political and physical arguments.” It should be a core, knowledge-based, fact-rich entitlement.

CW: Personally, that’s the kind of curriculum that I would want, but as a conservative with a small “c” I believe in parental choice. I believe in diversity. I don’t see how you can have the diversity that is necessary for genuine parental choice if all schools are forced by law to teach a National Curriculum. You and I might approve of a particular national curriculum under your leadership, but nonetheless the point of principle remains very important to me.

MG: I quite agree, and there are some schools that neither Chris nor I would want to send our children to or teach in. They perhaps have a different ethos, which is in its own way admirable. 

CW: Would you allow them public money?

MG: This is the crucial thing. If a school is already well led then it can be led out of local authority control and out of the curriculum by the head there. We would have confidence that that individual and his leadership team would do that responsibly. If someone set up a new school in a way that was ultra-progressive and liberal and parents decided to send their children there that would be fine. Chris and I might want to avert our eyes, but I am a liberal. I believe that if parents have a strong view that a certain education is desirable — if the person providing that education is not in any way a religious crank or a political extremist or an incompetent or a fraudster, if it is someone who is a fit and proper person to run an educational establishment — it is fine for them to depart from our educational philosophy. That is a school of choice and parents will make a deliberate decision to send their children there, much in the same way as in the independent sector. Most schools offer a pretty traditional education but there is a minority that offer a very laissez-faire approach. My own view, which is not just prejudice but observation, is that the lower down the socio-economic scale you go, the more staunchly conservative people are in their expectations of education. In other words, the children of BBC drama producers might wel — -if they can afford it — like Bedales and Bryanston, but the parents I knew in Aberdeen when I was growing up want their children to go to a traditional school. 

CW: That again is music to my ears and I think you’re absolutely right about the aspirations of parents lower down the social scale. But the logic of all that is to abolish the National Curriculum, to abolish Ofsted  and to abolish the teacher training system.

MG: I don’t think we can abolish the National Curriculum because I believe there will be many schools at this stage where they will either not want to or not be ready to.

CW: But this is the notion of “earned autonomy” that Tony Blair used to use around 1997 and it doesn’t seem to me there is any difference between Gove and the Labour government at that time.

MG: It’s a fair point! The language and trajectory sounds similar. The difference is that we’ve said explicitly that there’s a clear set of criteria that schools need to clear before they can diverge from the National Curriculum. Over the last two years, [the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families] Ed Balls has diminished the autonomy that schools have from the National Curriculum and he is expanding what’s in it. I would reverse that, expanding the number of schools that can depart from it. Maybe something like 400-800 secondary comprehensives would be able to depart from it. There’s an incentive to do that. If you are a pretty decent head of a comprehensive and you find the Gove/Woodhead curriculum unnecessarily restrictive then the answer is clear: you improve your school and then you’re no longer in the bear-hug of classical learning that we insist on. You can then offer something different that parents want.

That’s where the Ofsted comes in. Like the National Curriculum, it has grown too much in what it attempts to do, therefore losing its focus and utility. When Chris was leading Ofsted, you had political battles to fight. Things were never perfect in this fallen world! But in those days it was what it says on the tin: an office for standards in education. It’s not that any more. It has admirable people within it, but they’ve been prevented from fulfilling it. My view is that Ofsted should focus on four things: behaviour and safety; the quality of teaching; the level of achievement; and the quality of leadership and management. All the other things that have been added on, such as the requirement that schools demonstrate that they are contributing to social cohesion, are entirely incidental and should be swept away. If you concentrate on those four things you don’t simply see whether or not they’re teaching in accordance with the latest fashionable theory, you actually look properly to inspect the quality of teaching. Then they will provide the sort of information that will allow parents to make a more informed choice. It will also allow policymakers to divert resources where necessary into the right areas.

CW: That would be much better than what we have now. But I’m still anxious about what I take to be the current paradox in the Conservative position. There’s a choice: either we believe that schools can be managed, intelligently or unintelligently, tightly or loosely, but the management would nevertheless be centralised because you’re sticking with a National Curriculum that purports to deliver a system of education that you think is right. Either you have that centralised, top-down approach, or you believe in freedom: the freedom of schools to function within a market to meet the needs of parents, their consumers. At the moment you’re trying to have it both ways. That worries me because I think it’s illogical. 

I also think that the attempt to manage things from the centre has failed. Even if you could develop a National Curriculum that made sense to you and me, (a) it wouldn’t necessarily be a desirable curriculum for every parent and (b) what happens when the Conservatives lose power, which they eventually will? The curriculum that [Baroness] Emily Blatch established back in the early 1990s with John Patten was a curriculum that you would have approved of. I certainly did. But, of course, it has been hijacked by successive administrations and the educational establishment. The power of the latter is huge. You are going to have to be determined and ruthless in the abolition of organisations like the National College for School Leadership and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, which in the past you have praised, if you are going to stop the “thought world” which at the moment is cloning all the teachers on whom we depend. 

MG: I admire the rigour with which Chris characterises the situation. But my difference of opinion springs from a couple of things. The first is that I don’t believe that you can move from the current situation to a situation where every school is independent overnight. If you did do so you would actually in the end empower the educational establishment because some of those schools that you would transform into wholly independent state schools tomorrow would fail or falter. That would give ammunition to your critics. It’s also the case that some of the people who have come from or been shaped by the “thought world” that Chris describes would depart even further from what the overwhelming majority of parents would like to see. Eventually, over time, if there were no politics in it, parental commonsense would eventually ensure that all of those schools improved. My view is that we’re introducing the maximum level of parental influence, control and voice at the fastest possible rate consistent with ensuring that this system is still coherent and intelligible to parents, and that in areas where the system is palpably failing we can use the cash and expertise from people who really know what they’re doing. Chris has described the Platonic ideal. I’m trying to find the Aristotelian practical golden mean.  

DJ: Chris, you set up and ran a chain of low-cost, low-budget schools which seem to deliver very much what parents want. The practical task of setting up new schools within the state sector, which you, Michael, are proposing, is possibly even more difficult. In West London, the journalist Toby Young is trying to set up a school with a “classical curriculum”, an emphasis on Latin and Greek and the liberal arts. But he and his fellow parents have run into many practical obstacles, not least local authorities saying, “You have to demonstrate that there is a demand for this school and until you do you won’t get public funding.” It’s a chicken and an egg situation. You don’t know if there is a demand until you do it. How are you going to make it possible for parents to do this within a reasonable time-frame?

CW: I approve of the Swedish free schools. But the expansion of free schools in Sweden has depended on the involvement of the private sector. It seems to me common sense that to expect there to be Toby Youngs across poor areas of London is unlikely and that even Toby — bless his cotton socks — is finding it difficult. Therefore why don’t you involve companies that have the market experience of running and building schools that don’t cost much more than the state sector?

MG: Both of you point out how it can be made easier overall, particularly if we expect any parent to do it. Even if we do make it easier for parents, the lessons from existing state schools that have tried it suggest that it is religious parents who drive it, so what do we do about the others? I want to end the chicken and egg situation that you describe. One way would be to say, if you can find 20, 30 or 40 parents who would be interested in this they would be able to take the money the local authority currently spends on their behalf and spend it themselves. The other problem is that it’s very difficult to find buildings that can be turned into schools because they have to be built on D1 land [designated for non-residential institutions]. We would say that a school could be built on any land. We’d also act quickly to remove barriers to planning applications. That’s especially important because some local authorities are simultaneously planning authorities and educational authorities and might thus act as guarantors of their own monopolies. That would be wrong. It’s striking how many of the top fee-paying schools, that millionaires batter down the doors to get their children into, are in what were once residential environments. Good schools have been created in former further education colleges, in observatories and so forth. You’ve got some fantastic buildings there which have been given a new lease of life.

One of the striking things about Sweden, America and Canada is that some of their most successful free schools and charter schools have been non-profit. Some of them have been set up by philanthropists, others with the help of private-sector institutions, which are not seeking to make a profit that then goes back to shareholders. My challenge to any profit-making company would be: the people you really need to convince are both parents and taxpayers — parents that you can provide something better, taxpayers that their money should be deployed to support you. Therefore the challenge to any private-sector organisation is, take advantage of any existing legislation, set up a school on a non-profit basis, show that you can do a better job than anywhere else. If profit-making institutions can do such a good job, then why wouldn’t they wish to set up a not-for-profit school and then say come and have a look and admire what it is that we are doing?

CW: Cogita is a profit-making organisation. Our schools by and large are oversubscribed so in terms of the challenge of persuading people that it is a good idea to send their children to them, we’ve met that challenge. In terms of the taxpayer, my view is that the money that you Secretaries of State for Schools spend is given to you by parents and I don’t see why you should not give the parents who want it the money back. Say you don’t have to cash it just in a state school, but you can cash it also in a private school, and top it up.

MG: That’s another area where I disagree.

CW: I don’t know why philosophically, as a Conservative, you think that it is wrong for parents who wish to forgo their holiday or new car, to spend their money on their child’s education. 

MG: This is probably the area where I don’t know what I am. Am I shockingly left-wing or am I being infected by the spirit of John Rawls?

CW: I just think that you are a politician. 

MG: Possibly. Well, I cannot deny I am a politician. But as a matter of conviction, if politicians are allowed to have those, one of the things that irritates me most about education in this country is inequality of opportunity. Therefore, I see a huge prize in terms of opening up the education system and transforming it, with the people who are most likely to benefit being the poorest. I think that we are in danger of letting that prize slip through our hands if we create an education system that reinforces some of the advantages that the already wealthy have. 

CW: Why would it? You can go for a voucher — I know we are not supposed to use that word but let me just use it as shorthand. You give Daniel £5,000 because he is a nice middle-class person. You can give me £8,000 because I am on the breadline. If you do that, why is it that the least well-off are going to suffer?

MG: Because if Daniel were wealthy, he could top up by £5,000 or £10,000.

CW: Why shouldn’t he?

MG: My view is, if he wants to, I have no objection to that but that he should go out of the state system. And the whole point about using state money in that way is that you give more to the very poorest. But the playing field is not just level, it’s weighted in favour of the poorest. Because my instinctive approach is that we don’t want to have state money subsidising the choice of people who want to go, in effect, outside the state system and then to use their already existing wealth to leverage that advantage. 

CW: There two points I want to make. One,  we should trust individuals, in this case parents, to make the right choices for their children. And to enable any parent who wants to do what they think is right for their children as much as possible. And second, it comes back to the earlier part of our discussion, namely: do you believe that the Secretary of State, aided and abetted by the various bureaucracies, can lever up standards or do you believe in markets and choice? And if you believe in markets and choice then surely anything that you can do to invite companies like Cognita to set up more schools is a good thing.

MG: This is again one of the areas where there is a difference of emphasis, if not of  matter and substance. I do believe that we should do many things to improve competition but not everything, because I don’t believe that is the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is not to have the maximum level of competition. The goal is to have the maximum level of competition consistent with certain guarantees and principles of equity and a certain role for the state. So I don’t go the full way that Chris does. That is our difference. I think what I’ve argued for and what I would hope to introduce would mark a significant increase in diversity in state education. It would give parents a significantly greater degree of control and choice, massively more than they have at the moment. It would open the door to all sorts of organisations, including Cognita and others, coming into state education if they wish, but there would be certain barriers. Chris would argue that the erection of these barriers is illogical and inconsistent if what one wishes to do is to maximise the creation of, in effect, a market-like mechanism in education. I would concede that because in my view there are certain things which I would like to provide a guarantee for. So I wouldn’t allow institutions to make a profit in the way that Cognita does at the moment, but I would say that Cognita could come in and run a school and demonstrate the difference it could make. That could influence debate. I would not allow — we have not touched on it — selection.

CW: Yes.

MG: Because I think that would result in cream-skimming and in new schools taking those children who are easiest to teach and not benefiting all. I would also not allow top-up fees because I want to ensure that it is the children of the poorest that benefit. And the reason why I mention top-up fees and selection in the same breath is because my view is that the children who lose out most from the current system are the very poorest. I want to start by helping them most and my belief is that the system that I’ve outlined, and the safeguards we put in place and the weighting that we would institute, would actually ensure that the changes would benefit the poorest fastest.  

CW: You mentioned selection and the broad issue implicit in that of admissions procedures and you talked about the best schools in the country being the independent schools. Now, one crucial characteristic of being an independent school is its ability to set its own admissions criteria and often, though not always, to select children in terms of ability. My view is that if we want schools to be free and independent you have got to give them that right. I think you are wrong in worrying that every school will seek to be a grammar school. Many schools might want to be grammar schools, but I don’t think that all will, because many within the world of education are deeply committed to the education of the disadvantaged and less able. They might be woolly-minded about how they deliver that commitment but they are deeply committed. There are, moreover, only a limited number of academically gifted children, so most schools would need within an education market to develop a “product” that appeals to a wider group of students. Because I think children have different abilities, this fits my overall argument. Some are very bright academically, others are much more gifted in terms of practical vocational and skills. So why not free up schools to determine the curriculum, the ethos and the admissions procedures that follow from that? Then we get a system that has diversity and which caters for the different needs of individual pupils. 

MG: The last challenge is a particularly powerful one. But I will start with the broader argument on selection. Chris mentioned my allusion to independent fee-paying schools but those I am most impressed with are the independent state schools, such as the original City Technology Colleges. They are comprehensive schools! And those academies that, you and I would agree, do an outstanding job, like the Mossbourne Community Academy [in Hackney, east London]. 

CW: I would say that successful schools, like Mossbourne, are not succeeding because of their academy status. I see nothing in their status that explains their success. They succeed because they are led by an outstanding headteacher.

MG: That may or not may be so.

CW: It is.

MG: One thing that is true about Mossbourne, as well as being an academy, is that it is a comprehensive. It has a socially comprehensive intake in a very challenging part of London. It has 85 per cent of its children getting five “A”s in GSCEs, including English and Maths. And a school like Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College, in Lewisham, [south-east London], which did equally well and has done for many years, is also socially comprehensive. We could run through a full list of City Technology Colleges and they are all comprehensives. So there are schools which can succeed for all the children there, both the very academic and the less able.

CW: There are, but the key question is how many of them are there? I would argue that even within the academy movement there are very, very few that are succeeding anywhere like Mossbourne.

MG: There aren’t as many as I would like…

CW: Because there are so few headteachers with the strength of will to do that. If you want to develop a system, a structure, you can’t base that structure on the miracle of the outstanding headteacher. You have to develop something that’s replicable. 

MG: But there is a question on to which I will go into a second: how do you create a system in which you generate great headteachers? We have some ideas about that. But the broader point is that there are schools which are comprehensive which, when well led, can generate the sort of results that, to my mind, make the argument about selection — no pun intended — academic. The related question is: Chris and Cognita, I think, run an independent school in Buckinghamshire. 

CW: We have one in Buckinghamshire, Akeley Wood.

MG: Akeley Wood will take many children who will have failed the 11-plus or not been entered for it. Yet its academic results stand in comparison with the grammar schools around it, don’t they?

CW: They are good and I would like to say yes to what you’ve just said, because of the way we run our school. We do it rather well. 

MG: Exactly.

CW: But I do think the Conservative attitude towards grammar schools is wrong. Because the evidence is clear-cut that if you are interested in social mobility, as compassionate Conservatives are these days, then you have to recognise that there was more social mobility when there were more grammar schools. 

MG: There were lots of things that were different in the past. It’s a foreign country which I shan’t trespass into at this point. But the one point I was going to make about Chris’s school is that it’s a school that takes children from a wide ability range in a selective area and it has results as good as…

CW: Comparable…

MG: …comparable to selective schools in the area. Basically, the school deals with a wider spectrum of abilities than the neighbouring selective schools.

CW: It’s more complicated than that. It’s down to the commitment and the social class of parents.

MG: But the crucial thing is that the school does not need to be selective in order to succeed. It is its independence, the quality of its leadership and of course parental engagement that help it to succeed at that level. And that’s my broader point overall: you do not need to have selection to have a fantastic school. Now, you need to do other things: concentrate on having a good leader, work to engage parents, demand high standards from every child, recognising that high standards for some will be in the academic area, for others in other areas. But if you have those ingredients then you can generate great results. 

CW: You can. I don’t deny that there are great comprehensives and some — although very, very few — great comprehensives in areas of great social disadvantage. The problem for me is the bright young boy or girl from an extremely disadvantaged area whose parents haven’t got the money to send them to a school like ours in Buckinghamshire. They are likely to go to an inner-city comprehensive where there are few bright children with whom they can compete. I do not think that it is another country in this particular case. It is exactly the same in 2010 as it was 1957, when I went to a grammar school. We need schools that are established in order to cater for the needs of the brightest and most disadvantaged, who are at the moment slipping through the net. That’s why the number of children from disadvantaged areas going to Oxbridge and elsewhere is declining.

DJ: What in practical terms are you, Michael, going to do for heads? How will you free and motivate them? How are you, as the minister, going to get off their backs? 

MG: If I were the minister you mean…You are absolutely right to say that heads suffer from a welter of interventions. One of the things they fear, sometimes rightly, is Ofsted inspections. I want good heads to feel confident that they will pass these inspections with flying colours and not fail them for bureaucratic reasons. There is a range of areas where the heads are restricted in both what they can pay good teachers and how they can deal with under-performing teachers, which we would change. There are rules, for example, about the number of hours that we would get rid of. And there is a range of other areas where we would remove the bureaucratic obstacles — in discipline, for example. We would make it easier for heads to exclude disruptive children without being second-guessed by outside bodies. It is crucial that the heads’ authority should not be questioned when they are imposing their authority. We would make it easier for heads to insist on parents signing home-school agreements. Also having a clearer understanding of what is expected when they arrive. Making it easier to impose detention — at the moment, heads have to give 24 hours’ notice to the child. We think this is ludicrous. These are all minor things that add up and which we would change. But more broadly, we would help recruit more people into teaching who could become great heads of the kind that Chris rightly says we need more of. We would raise the bar of entry into the teaching profession. Finland and Singapore do that better than us by recruiting the very best people into teaching. In Finland, you cannot be a teacher unless you are in the top 10 per cent of graduates and in Singapore the top quarter or third. 

CW: All schools in England? Infants schools? Schools for children with emotional problems? 

MG: We’ve said you can’t have a taxpayer-funded PGCE [Post-Graduate Certificate of Education] unless you’ve got at least a “B” in GCSE maths or English, which is at a stroke a move from two-thirds to one-third of those sitting those exams. We’ve also said that you can’t train to be a teacher and have the taxpayer pay if you’ve got a third-class degree. If you have a First and or a 2.1 in maths, physics or chemistry from a top university we will pay your student loan. In other words, the very best scientists and mathematicians will have a very strong incentive to enter teaching. We’ve also said that some of the organisations like Teach First and Teaching Leaders, which have been set up specifically to attract the headmasters of the future, will be better funded. There is no reason why in England we couldn’t have a system whereby, over time, teaching becomes as prestigious as medicine, or becoming a BBC news trainee or entering the fast-track civil service.

CW: If you do something about discipline, which you intend to and which at present puts a lot of people off, and if you do something about the bureaucracy which you intend to. But I still look forward to more specifics about that. There is the whole issue of the local authorities and the way in which their advisers intrude into schools, distracting teachers and headteachers. There is a whole complex of surrounding issues that you are going to need to address if you are going to achieve what is a goal that I applaud.

DJ: Are you happy with the abolition of the idea of the Department of Education? Do you have any plans to disentangle the present bureaucratic muddle whereby education and social policy are confused in the same ministry?

MG: Yes, I do. At the moment universities and further education colleges are in a different department. Lord Mandelson is in the process of undermining liberal learning at the universities with the research assessment framework that he has proposed. David Willetts has been brilliant at exposing it. That will be David’s responsibility. Mine stops at the school gates, as it were. But I think that within my department it is crucial that we make it clear that the most important thing is school standards. Just over two years ago Andrew [Lord] Adonis delivered a lecture in which he made a point that is very much my view, which is that if you concentrate on raising children’s attainment in a school, if you make sure they have the qualifications and the knowledge necessary to succeed at school, then all the other social goods almost inevitably flow from that. If you are worried about teenage pregnancies, then the most important thing you can do is to make sure that young boys and girls are so well educated that they are not tempted to indulge in those kinds of risky behaviour, the drug-taking and the underage sex which you find among children who have fewer qualifications and less sense of optimism about the future. The better educated children are, from whatever ability range and background, the less likely they are to do any of these things. I value education a priori as a good in its own right, but actually if you concentrate on educating children, most of the social goals that most of us share are achieved along the way.

CW: I agree with everything that Michael says in terms of what he wants to achieve. I am not yet persuaded that he has the policies to achieve these goals.