Published on 20 Jan 2011 Sections

Gove’s ‘academic rigour’ was born at Oxford

As the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, launches a review aimed at restoring “academic rigour” to the national curriculum, Samira Ahmed looks back at the roots of his beliefs.

Michael Gove (Getty)

Hearing the attacks for alleged “elitism” made on Education Secretary Michael Gove‘s plans to make the curriculum of state schools more academically rigorous, I remembered something he wrote about that very subject 23 years ago, in January 1988 when we were both undergraduates at Oxford University.

The future Conservative Education Secretary was then President of the Oxford Union – the university’s famous debating society – that term.

I, together with future novelist Toby Litt, edited the Union’s magazine, Debate. The content reflected the issues being debated that term and the pressing issues of the day as we saw them. The coverlines were: Money – about how most students seemed to be going into the City to become bankers – contrasted with mass unemployment and poverty in many inner cities; Fear was about Aids; and Sin was about homophobia.

But Michael Gove’s address at the front, was about the motion “This House believes that Oxford and Cambridge are too elitist”. It turned out to be a bold mission statement about his desire to stop Oxbridge being a finishing school for the children of the rich; by raising educational standards in state schools.

“If our state schools were a little more elitist, if they tested their pupils with greater rigour and frequency and brought home the difference between failure and success more forcibly they would have more pupils at Oxford.” Michael Gove in 1988

“Elitism is not a bad thing,” he wrote. “Unjustified or corrupt elites are wrong, but the concept of striving after excellence which underpins elitism is entirely worthy.

“If our state schools were a little more elitist, if they tested their pupils with greater rigour and frequency and brought home the difference between failure and success more forcibly they would have more pupils at Oxford.”

Explaining why true elitism in his opinion would “not mean more Sloanes and fewer scholarships but rather the reverse”, Michael Gove added: “In a sense elitism is like roughage. The system works better and more cleanly and blockages are eliminated by the introduction of a little fibre.”

The odd subbing/typesetting error apart (in the garbled sentence about societies choosing their elites) it certainly makes interesting reading in the light of his announcement, not least the reference to Old Etonians: “If I had not been tested, cajoled, frightened by failure and stimulated by success I would not be at University… I cannot over-emphasise what elitism is NOT. It is not about back-slapping cliques, reactionary chic or Old Etonian egos. It is a spirit of unashamed glamour, excitement and competition.”

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