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Berlin Wall?

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The Right Hon Michael Gove MP. Oh where does one start? Perhaps let us start with two words: Berlin Wall. Berlin Wall is the term that Mr Gove has just used to describe what it is that separates private and public education in the UK. And what a powerful term it is: so laden with symbolism, so inviting of destruction and also so instructive of his own detachment from reality.

On one side of this wall you have private education, where all wear Levi jeans, wear Nike trainers and drive BMWs. On the other you have public education where all wear plimsolls, brown polyester slacks and drive Trabants. (One assumes it is this way around - although when entering the mind of Michael Gove it is probably unwise to make too many assumptions).

If one wished to pick any term to represent the boundary or barrier between public and private education, there can be none better than Berlin Wall if what you wish to do is fundamentally alienate anyone who has had any involvement in education in this country for the last half-century. This term implies that you have been part of a repressive authoritarian regime that inflicts its ideology on the populace, via the practice of thought control, massive intrusion on civil liberties and a repressive police state. Now, no matter what you views on the course of the educational debate as it has panned-out since the 1960s, no rational examination of this debate could lead you to conclude that the relationship between private and public education could realistically be characterised in this manner. Or that any good might come of trying to represent it thus.

Rather, one might conclude that private and private education actually live in a largely symbiotic relationship with each other. Public education exists to deliver what private education could never do, namely the management of a national system of education that can ensure equality of access and consistent delivery to a universal high standard, removing the uncertainties, inconsistencies and inequalities that a market-driven system is bound to deliver, no matter how tightly you try and regulate it. Private education exists for those who can afford to opt-out and play this uncertain market, in pursuit of a better option for themselves - albeit with this risk underwritten by the existence of public safety net. We can't just merge public education into private education because we then simply create a game which will result in winners, losers and everything in between - with no safety net. Alternatively it will create the worst of all worlds: a quasi-private system that doffs its cap to the market, but is prevented by regulation from effectively harnessing the competitive forces drive successful markets and yet delivers none of the coherence, consistency and security that only an effectively managed (rather than regulated) public service can do.

Even if you would disagree with this analysis, surely we can all agree that whatever it is that lies between private and public education, it is not a Berlin Wall. Why then has Mr Gove used this term? Presumably he doesn't deliberately wish to antagonise all of the people he needs to work with: all of those people he supposedly leads, in-so-far as Government is expected to provide any sort of leadership in a world where markets set the direction? One can therefore only assume that this is actually how he sees the world and how he defines his role within it. In many ways, it is a convenient view. It allows one to elevate your activities beyond mere policy to the level of a mighty crusade. It means that those who oppose you are not simply people with a different point of view which might warrant consideration, they are heretics and counter-revolutionaries who must be crushed. All past knowledge and experience can be dismissed as irrelevant. The world can be neatly divided into those for and those against (who must, by definition be wrong). The more opposition you encounter, the more valid is your idea, the more righteous is your quest. History and present reality exist only in-so-far as they can be moulded to your perspective and support your endeavour- hence, of course, Berlin Wall. It is basically what Chairman Mao did with the Cultural Revolution, or Stalin with his 5 year plans. The inconvenient reality was never allowed to intrude upon the ideological purity of the concept.

Perhaps comparing Commissar Gove to Chairman Mao is pushing the boat out a little. But his Berlin Wall analogy does suggest a man dangerously out of touch with reality. In fact, I would suggest that Mr Michael Gove - nice, polite man that he supposedly is - leaped over the restraining fence of reality quite some while back and is now roaming the hills, butt-naked with his hairy arse in the wind, sustained only by the intoxicating liquor of ideology, in fevered pursuit of that secret cabal of left-wing academics, BBC journalists and the abominable metropolitian elite who have actually been running this country since the end of the First World War. Which is all very well were it not for the fact that cradled within his arms is the educational future of our children.