Education Secretary Michael Gove addressed Brighton College’s annual conference for school leaders yesterday (Thursday 10 May).
He praised the school and its head teacher Richard Cairns, saying: “It is one of the many pleasures of being Education Secretary that I get to visit outstanding schools every week – and am constantly impressed by the amazing work of so many inspirational teachers.
“We have thousands of superb state schools – some of the very best in the world.
“And we have hundreds of superlative independent schools – collectively the best independent schools sector in the world.
“Given the quality of the competition, it is a wonderful accolade for Brighton College to be named UK Independent School of the Year.
“Wonderful but not surprising because those of us who know Richard recognise that he is one of the most visionary leaders in education today.
“He recognises that nothing matters more than improving the quality of teaching.
“He’s been ambitious to spread excellence beyond his own school.
“Richard has expanded Brighton College’s reach by taking over other schools, enabling hundreds more children to benefit from Brighton’s unique and award-winning recipe for success.
“And, above all, Richard has combined an unflinching focus on academic standards with a deeply held social mission.
“As well as expanding scholarship access to this school, Richard is leading a consortium of independent schools which are sponsoring a new free school in Newham – the London Academy of Excellence – which will help the poorest students make it to our best universities.”
Mr Gove also praised Brighton College for offering sixth form scholarships to poor pupils from Kingsford Community School in Beckton in east London.
He spoke about a desire for opportunity to be more equal between those educated in the state and independent sectors, saying: “Fan as I am of the virtues nurtured here, I can’t help reflecting on some other facts about our society which the excellence of the education offered in our independent schools underlines.
“It is remarkable how many of the positions of wealth, influence, celebrity and power in our society are held by individuals who were privately educated.
“Around the cabinet table a majority – including myself – were privately educated.
“Around the shadow cabinet table the Deputy Leader, the Shadow Chancellor, the Shadow Business Secretary, the Shadow Olympics Secretary, the Shadow Welsh Secretary and the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development were all educated at independent schools.
“On the bench of our supreme court, in the precincts of the bar, in our medical schools and university science faculties, at the helm of FTSE 100 companies and in the boardrooms of our banks, independent schools are – how can I best put this – handsomely represented.
“You might hear some argue that these peaks have been scaled by older alumni of our great independent schools and things have changed for younger generations. But I fear that is not so.
“Take sport, where by definition the biggest names are in their teens, twenties and thirties.
“As Ed Smith, the Tonbridge-educated former England player, and current Times journalist, points out in his wonderful new book Luck …
“Twenty-five years ago, of the 13 players who represented England on a tour of Pakistan, only one had been to a private school. In contrast, over two thirds of the current team are privately educated.
“You’re 20 times more likely to go on and play for England if you go to private school rather than state school.
“The composition of the England rugby union team and the British Olympic team reveal the same trend.
“Of those members of England’s first 15 born in England, more than half were privately educated.
“And again, half the UK’s gold medallists at the last Olympics were privately educated, compared with 7 per cent of the population.
“It’s not just in sport that the new young stars all have old school ties. It’s in Hollywood, Broadway and on our TV screens.
“Hugh Laurie, Dominic West, Damian Lewis, Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne – all old Etonians.
“One almost feels sorry for Benedict Cumberbatch – a lowly Harrovian. And Dan Stevens – heir to Downton Abbey and an old boy of Tonbridge – is practically a street urchin in comparison.
“If acting is increasingly a stage for public school talent, one might have thought that at least comedy or music would be an alternative platform for outsiders.
“But then – Armando Iannucci, David Baddiel, Michael McIntyre, Jack Whitehall, Miles Jupp, Armstrong from Armstrong and Miller and Mitchell from Mitchell and Webb were all privately educated.
“2010’s Mercury Music Prize was a battle between privately educated Laura Marling and privately educated Marcus Mumford.
“And from Chris Martin, of Coldplay, to Tom Chaplin, of Keane, popular music is populated by public school boys.
“Indeed when Keane were playing last Sunday on the Andrew Marr show everyone in that studio – the band, the presenter and the other guests – Lib Dem peer Matthew Oakeshott, Radio 3 Presenter Clemency Burton-Hill and Sarah Sands, editor of the London Evening Standard – were all privately educated.
“Indeed it’s in the media that the public school stranglehold is strongest.
“The chairman of the BBC and its director-general are public school boys. And it’s not just the Evening Standard which has a privately educated editor.
“My old paper The Times is edited by an old boy of St Paul’s and its sister paper The Sunday Times by an old Bedfordian.
“The new editor of The Mail on Sunday is an old Etonian, the editor of the Financial Times is an old Alleynian and the editor of The Guardian is an Old Cranleighan.
“Indeed the Guardian has been edited by privately educated men for the last 60 years.
“But then many of our most prominent contemporary radical and activist writers are also privately educated.
“George Monbiot, of The Guardian, was at Stowe, Seumas Milne, of The Guardian, was at Winchester and perhaps the most radical new voice of all, Laurie Penny, of The Independent, was educated here at Brighton College.
“Now I record these achievements not because I wish to either decry the individuals concerned or criticise the schools they attended. Far from it.
“It is undeniable that the individuals I have named are hugely talented and the schools they attended are premier league institutions.
“But the sheer scale, the breadth and the depth, of private school dominance of our society points to a deep problem in our country – one we all acknowledge but have still failed to tackle with anything like the radicalism required.
“We live in a profoundly unequal society. More than almost any developed nation ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress.
“Those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege in England than in any comparable county.
“For those of us who believe in social justice, this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.
“And for those of us who want to see greater economic efficiency, it is a pointless squandering of our greatest asset – our children – to have so many from poorer backgrounds manifestly not achieving their potential.
“When more Etonians make it to Oxbridge than boys and girls on benefit then we know we are not making the most of all our nation’s talents.
“When hundreds of primary schools allow children to leave not able to read, write or add up properly we know we are indulging in a form of national self-harm so profound as to be disabling.
“Even when disadvantaged children attend schools which perform well overall, they continue to lag behind their wealthier, luckier peers.
“Despite the evidence that other nations are closing the gap between rich and poor through great state schooling, some in this country still argue that pupil achievement is overwhelmingly dictated by socio-economic factors.
“They say that deprivation means destiny – that schools are essentially impotent in the face of overwhelming force of circumstance.
“And that we can’t expect children to succeed if they have been born into poverty, disability or disadvantage.
“I simply don’t accept that. Not just because other countries show us what can be done. But because I believe such fatalism in the face of circumstance is a profoundly reactionary doctrine.
“It denies the possibility of progress through human action. It says to all those driven by idealism to enter the classroom that they are simply spectators in a pageant of futility.
“And I am encouraged in my conviction by the knowledge that I am not alone.
“There are a growing number of schools proving that deprivation need not be destiny – that with the right teaching and the right values they can outperform everyone’s expectations.
“What they share is an unwavering, unapologetic focus on standards. Led by inspirational heads and teachers, every day, these schools are proving the pessimists and fatalists wrong.
“They show us all that there need be no difference in performance – none whatsoever – between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from wealthier homes.
“They show us that a difficult start in life can be overcome, with hard work and good teaching.
“And that it is entirely possible for children to break free of the bonds of poverty and disadvantage, transforming a deprived start into a bright future.”
Mr Gove said that the schools closing the attainment gap were doing what Brighton College does
- demanding high academic standards from every student
- recruiting the best teachers
- operating outside their own four walls
- having a sense of burning social mission
He said: “Our reform programme is intended to ensure the virtues which characterise those schools are embedded across the school system. And we start with a relentless focus on overcoming disadvantage.”
One of the most important interventions of all would start next month, he said, a check on every six-year-old to make sure that they were on track to read effortlessly.
“Given that one in six 11-year-olds is still struggling with reading when they leave primary school we are determined to drive up standards in the crucial skill of early reading.
“If children can’t learn to read, they can’t read to learn.
“We are determined to help all children to become fluent and enthusiastic readers, with the life-changing skill of turning words on the page into images, information and ideas.
“In a few weeks’ time, six-year-olds across the country will be checked to see how well they’ve mastered phonics – the method of teaching reading which has been proven to be most successful with all children, and particularly those from disadvantaged homes.
“We have been clear that the results for the reading check will not be published in league tables although schools will be required to tell parents their own child’s results.
“We will ensure progress is maintained.
“We have introduced a tough new primary school floor standard – meaning that a school will fall below the floor when fewer than 60 per cent of pupils achieve the ‘basics’ standard in both English and mathematics and fewer pupils than average make the expected levels of progress between Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2.
“At the moment, there are 1,310 primaries below this floor – mostly those in poorer areas.
“Two hundred of the worst performing primary schools will convert to academy status with a strong sponsor, reopening in 2012.
“And we’re aiming for academy status for hundreds more primary schools that have been below the floor for the last three years, ensuring all children get the high quality education they have a right to expect.
“For those schools which are stuck in mediocrity a tough new inspections framework will ensure they are held accountable for a failure to get children making progress.”
He defended the academies programme by saying: “The best academies are driving up standards for those children who have the worst start in life almost twice as quickly as other schools.
“And they’re doing it by giving great heads in the state system the freedom you have in the independent sector – to concentrate on education not bureaucracy.”
He concluded: “This government is neither idle nor complacent in the face of the inequality which scars our society.
“And that is because we know that progress – for individuals or society – is not a matter of laissez-faire but leadership.
“And because we recognise that governments must take sides in debates.
“We must be for aspiration, ambition, hard work and excellence, for success based on merit and a celebration of those who do succeed.
“How will we know if we’ve succeeded?
“Success may be decided by events far beyond this parliament.
“Will we, for example, ever see a comprehensive boy or girl edit The Guardian? Perhaps not in my lifetime.
“But, seriously, we know we are making progress when we hear the opposition from vested interests – from those in trade unions who put adults’ interests before children’s, from those in local government who put protecting their power before fulfilling children’s potential, from those who have acquiesced in a culture of low expectations who resist any form of accountability for failure.
“That opposition is out there – entrenched, organised, vocal and determined – and it is hoping we in the coalition government fail.
“But if we fail then so do thousands more of our poorest children and we cannot let that happen.”