Michael Gove has today backtracked on his historical resistance to new selective schools by saying the prime minister’s plans to expand grammars is “right” and will “spread excellence”.
Speaking to the BBC’s World at One, the former education secretary appeared to whole-heartedly back Theresa May and Justine Greening’s proposals to end the ban on new grammar schools – despite having suggested only last month that Greening should consult more experts before pressing ahead.
His comments today also contradict the position he has given in a number of interviews with journalists over the past few years, including during his tenure as education secretary.
Speaking in interview today, Gove said: “I myself introduced new selective schools – admittedly they were selective at the age of 16 – so I think the idea that you should say you’re utterly opposed to selection in all its forms is silly.
“So I think the approach the government is taking is right, and it’s driven by a desire to spread excellence.”
When pressed as to why he and former prime minister David Cameron – who said reintroducing grammar schools “has always been wrong” – did not allow the expansion of academic selection themselves, Gove blamed a busy agenda and the Liberal Democrats.
“The first reason and overwhelming reason [we did not consider grammar schools] is we were in coalition with the Liberal Democrats and the Liberal Democrats wanted no increase in selection.
“Also, David Cameron quite rightly concluded that when we were doing so much in many other areas that to add selection to the mix would have crystallised and solidified opposition to the changes that we wanted to make.”
Reminded of Cameron’s own strong ideological opposition grammar schools, Gove said simply that he “would not criticise David Cameron”.
Gove’s words are the latest, and firmest, announcement of his support for May’s education agenda since toning down his opposition to selection after being expelled from the Cabinet following the Brexit vote and reshuffle.
In what many political pundits have dubbed an attempt by the former justice secretary to return to the inner fold of government, Gove has changed his tune on academic selection from a firm dismissal six years ago and mild consternation over the plans as recently as a Commons debate this September.
When asked by the East Anglian Daily Times in December 2014 whether it was “time to repeal the ban on grammar schools”, Gove reportedly laughed and said: “No, is the short answer. I mean you can have lots and lots of social mobility in a society without having to have selection at 11.
“There’s nothing wrong with grammar schools, and there’s a lot to celebrate in the existing grammar schools that we have, but it’s also the case that comprehensive schools can do a fantastic job, if they have the high aspirations that I’ve seen for example here in this primary school.”
Citing Kent as an example, he added: “If you set up a new grammar school in an area where it’s predominantly comprehensive provision then what you’re doing is saying there is one school or two schools here where some children can get in and others can’t, but the other schools remain comprehensive, you create within a county a dynamic which hadn’t existed beforehand, which won’t necessarily work in everyone’s interests.”
Gove, while education secretary, also refused plans by a Kent grammar school to expand in 2013, although did say at the time he was open to future expansion.
According to The Guardian, Gove also suggested to Greening during a Commons debate on September 12, that she consult some experts – the majority of whom seemingly say there is no evidence to show grammar schools help social mobility – before going forward. He did, however, congratulate her “clear moral purpose”.
Shortly afterwards it was reported by the Times that Gove was expected to give a “cautious welcome” to the plans.
But, speaking to World at One today, Gove did insist that restoration of a country-wide 11-plus exam would be “totally wrong and a retrograde step”.
“I would not want to see, and I don’t think we are going to go anywhere near having, the restoration of the 11-plus across the country. What we are going to see is a detailed, evidence-led approach which will try to ensure that we get the maximum number of additional good school places.”
Gove added that he was opposed to “pristine ideology” and education secretaries were right to consider new ideas.