Labour ministers believe children from disadvantaged backgrounds should "stick to the station in life they were born into", the education secretary, Michael Gove, has said in an outspoken – in parts almost openly rude – speech outlining his philosophy for learning in schools.
In the address to the Social Market Foundation thinktank, Gove criticised the widespread opposition to the English Baccalaureate, the performance measure introduced in 2010 which gauges secondary schools by the proportion of pupils who get a C or above in six GCSEs – English, maths, two of the sciences, history or geography and a language.
"The reaction from the Labour party, the teaching unions, teacher training institutions and all too many figures ostensibly dedicated to cultural excellence was visceral horror," Gove said.
In the most scathing and personal section of the speech Gove argued that his Labour shadow, Stephen Twigg, along with the party's leader, Ed Miliband, and Ed Balls, the children's minister turned shadow chancellor, wanted to deny disadvantaged pupils the benefits of a liberal education of the sort they enjoyed in studying for degrees in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford.
Dipping into popular TV culture, Gove said: "The current leadership of the Labour party react to the idea that working-class students might study the subjects they studied with the same horror that the Earl of Grantham showed when a chauffeur wanted to marry his daughter.
"Labour, under their current leadership, want to be the Downton Abbey party when it comes to educational opportunity. They think working-class children should stick to the station in life they were born into – they should be happy to be recognised for being good with their hands and not presume to get above themselves."
While the English Baccalaureate, or Ebacc, currently remains just a performance measure, from 2017 students will begin taking exams leading towards the English Baccalaureate Certificates, or EBC, a replacement for GCSEs.
This plan, particularly the timetable of implementation, has prompted worries from both the exams watchdog Ofqual and the all-party education committee of MPs. Computer science was added to the core programme following lobbying by tech companies while culture groups have argued the specific focus will see the arts marginalised.
Gove took issue with this in his speech, somewhat provocatively titled No Excellence Please, We're Labour.
Countering the claims about creativity being quashed, he said: "So does that mean scientists from Rutherford to Dawkins are arid and uncreative mechanics? Mathematicians from Pythagoras to Turing are enemies of creativity? Historians like Schama or Gombrich are dull philistine souls? Explorers, cartographers and geographical pioneers from Mercator to Palin are presumably humdrum intellectual backmarkers and the study of authors such as Dickens or Eliot, Günter Grass or Alain-Fournier a form of spiritual imprisonment?"
The Ebacc was currently only a performance measure, Gove argued, while the national curriculum gave students a significantly broader spread. But, he said, the set subjects were "the most liberating of all options in school" since they were a precondition for entry to many universities.
Gove said: "The truth is that the Ebacc did not inspire opposition because it cast a shadow over creativity. It inspired opposition because it revealed how poorly served so many state students were. The comforting story we had been told about rapid and relentless educational improvement – based on GCSE results – was shown up as a far more complex narrative of inequality and untapped potential."
In response, Twigg said Gove was "clearly rattled" by the scale of opposition to his eventual EBC plan. Twigg said: "Instead of lecturing others, he should listen to business leaders, entrepreneurs, teachers and parents who think his plans are backward-looking and narrow.
"We need to get young people ready for a challenging and competitive world of work, not just dwell on the past."
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