Take such a child born in difficult circumstances in Moss Side or in Tottenham and living at the extremes. Rather than giving him or her a better education in an improved comprehensive or academy, why not select them for the chance to go to a top school, from where they stand a chance of getting in to the best universities and then reaching the summit of one of the great professions?
That was what happened after the war. The great wave of social mobility that swept through British institutions and business in the 1960s, '70s and '80s had its origins in the academic successes of the grammar school boys and girls born in the 1940s and '50s. That generation is now retired or retiring, and they are being replaced by those who went to the best independent schools. In this way comprehensives have had the opposite effect to that intended by their progressive advocates (who were often privately educated). Arguably it is Britain's greatest postwar public policy disaster, from quite a long list.
Gove agrees with the thrust of the analysis but clearly thinks we advocates of selection are missing the point.
"The child that you've mentioned will nowadays probably have been blighted long before the age of 11. There are children born in homes where there is drug abuse and domestic violence, and they may turn up at school already with speech and language problems. And then if they end up in the wrong primary school they won't even be taught to read and write properly. But there are schools that I've visited, that are all-ability comprehensives that have taken children like that and turned them around."
He cites children from academies he has visited recently, the sons and daughters of single mothers who are heading off to study at Oxford and Cambridge. "Look, at the moment I think we're at the peak of social immobility in Britain. It's not just the judiciary and around the Cabinet table, it is in music, in the new generation of actors and in sport. And of course one of the places you'll find the most public school boys is in the Guardian editorial conference. I hope that thanks to the reforms we've introduced the next Guardian editor but three will be a comprehensive school boy or girl. Will it happen in my lifetime?" This last point, about the Guardian, is accompanied by a booming laugh. Gove's public image is still that of a rather straight-backed geek, the swottish refugee from journalism who isn't natural leadership material, whereas in the flesh he combines impeccable manners with a playful sense of humour. If he can find a way of communicating that warmth to a wider audience, then he may yet lead.
His friend David Cameron is not well-disposed to the idea of going on and on as Tory leader and if the prime minister wins the next election it is highly unlikely he would choose to fight another. That raises the likelihood of a Conservative leadership contest in only five or six years' time. Boris Johnson and George Osborne are both determined to take over from Cameron and bubbling under the surface is a new generation of Tory MPs from the excellent intake at the general election. Others have their ambitions too.
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