There is presently much chatter among the politicking intelligentsia about education. Possibly because after a decade of Tony Blair’s ‘Education, education, education’ and God knows how many education white papers, green papers and acts of parliament to ‘reform’ the system, standards have fallen, results have worsened, and thousands upon thousands of children still leave school year after year having failed to achieve the most basic of qualifications. After 13 years of New Labour, two entire cohorts have passed through secondary education, and they are as ill-equipped as ever. It has been empirically established that where governments interfere, demanding ‘equality of outcome’ from social engineering with proscriptive initiatives and micro-management of process, the effects are damaging to generations of schoolchildren and detrimental to society.
A recent report
establishes that Labour has succeeded in restoring a privately educated ruling class. It highlights the fact that just 7 per cent of the population attend private schools, yet they account for 75 per cent of judges, 70 per cent of finance directors, 50 per cent of top journalists and 33 per cent of MPs (among Conservatives, the figure is closer to 50 per cent). It does not matter how many incomprehensible Glaswegians read out the news, how many Geordies dispense life sentences, how many Brummies become bishops or how many one-legged Asian lesbians are adopted for safe Conservative seats, a disproportionate number will have been privately educated.
For he that hath, to him shall be given even more: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken the very means by which he might one day have hath.
Grammar schools have been the most dynamic and successful motor of social mobility ever conceived. Yet every major political party is dedicated either to their constriction or eradication: they are all intent on abolishing the meritocratic principle by which they were defined.
The rich have always sent their children to private schools, and the not-so-rich have scrimped and saved in traumatic attempts to spare their own children from the inadequacies and deficiencies of a system they half endured. When there was a grammar school in every town, entry was on merit, irrespective of parental income or social class. And the poorest could rise to attain the highest: the sons of miners could become a Nobel prize-winner and the daughters of grocers could become prime minister. Now, of course, entry to the grammars is as restricted as it is for private education: while the latter is dependent on the ability to pay the fees, the former is dependent on the ability to afford a house in the catchment area.
Social mobility has nothing to do with the fascist egalitarianism of Socialism – economic equality or equality of outcome. Sadly, there will always be those for whom aspiration causes social division and so must be abolished. But social mobility is inherent to meritocracy which is foundational to Conservatism because it is dependent on equality of opportunity. And that opportunity must be available to all. In order for there to be ‘grammar school boys’ to compete fairly with the privileged Old Etonians, there simply needs to be more grammar schools to provide the bright working and lower middle class child with opportunities equal to those of private schools.
There are some in the Labour Party who recognise this. Some are duplicitous liars; a few are struggling to express integrity and honesty in a party stewing in its own corruption. Ed Balls is one of the former; Alan Milburn the latter.
A few weeks ago, the Secretary of State for
Breast Feeding and Nappy Changing
Children, Schools and Families provided a statement
on the Schools’ White Paper, and he made an extraordinary remark. “Our best state schools”, he said, “now match the best schools in the private sector and anywhere in the world.”
This was a curious boast and a perverse arrogation of credit, since the only state schools which ‘match’ the academic achievement of the best private schools are the few remaining grammar schools – the very schools New Labour have persistently undermined and have sought consistently to eradicate.
And yet he manifestly (if tacitly) praised the achievement of the grammars, which manifestly (and overtly) select by academic ability.
But, of course, the selection is no longer purely meritocratic, for it is not by academic ability alone, but the ability of mummy and daddy to buy a house with the right postcode.
This is what the Conservative Party must address, and by doing so they would do well to learn from history. If Michael Gove wishes a true revolution, he must study the provisions of the 1944 Education Act. Two cohorts on from the passing of that act, the ‘best jobs’ were no longer the preserve of the privileged élite: they were open to everyone with the ability, irrespective of social class or economic circumstances.
Alan Milburn’s report
on social mobility is brave, though it is a curious intervention in the twilight of Gordon Brown’s premiership from which Mr Milburn had removed himself in order ‘to spend more time with the family’. His return to the stage is ominous. But he is evidently a man with whom the Conservative Party could do business. He praises the Conservative proposal to introduce more competition in the supply of school places, noting that in countries such as Denmark and Sweden parents are able to choose schools. And he even uses the ‘v’ word which no Conservative has dared to use since the very concept was blamed for the loss of a general election. He advocates vouchers for education (and if for education, why not for health?), and sees clearly that what Britain needs ‘a second great wave of social mobility like that of the 1950s and 60s’.
It does not take a genius to credit this first ‘great wave’ to the 1944 Education Act which made access to grammar schools free for all.
Working class children in these schools were ‘pushed’ to aspire in ways their parents never knew how. Academic aspiration has historically been the preserve of the wealthier parents, but those from deprived backgrounds have rarely spurred their children to achieve beyond the confines of their context, principally for fear of them ‘getting above themselves’. Low aspiration begets low expectation; low expectation begets low achievement; low achievement begets low income; low income begets poverty; poverty begets crime...
The Conservative Party is on the right course in all but two respects:
1) There must be selection by ability and an end to mixed-ability teaching, which is ineffective and demoralising. Under existing plans, the intention is to remove the red tape that stops the creation of new schools. These institutions would then be free from local authority control, with central government paying an allowance of about £6,000 per pupil. But they will be unable to select by ability: they will all be comprehensive schools.
Inequality is the natural order of things. Just as ugly people are barred by nature from beauty competitions, and the tone deaf from joining the choir, so those who are not academic must be separated from those who are and provided with an education tailored to their needs. It is called ‘personalised learning’, and it is a Government initiative. But it is not possible to teach excellent bricklayers and outstanding poets at the same pace in the same group of 30, for the lowest common denominator will prevail, and this negates potential and undermines the country’s social and economic future.
2) Schools run by private companies must be able to make a profit. Under existing plans, only charities and non-profit-making bodies would be allowed to create new ‘free schools’ supported by the taxpayer. Worried that too few voluntary bodies will come forward to set up the schools, it is reported
that the Party is presently considering introducing a profit motive.
Even James Purnell, the former work and pensions secretary, has said: “If allowing state schools to be run by profit-making companies encourages equality of capability, we will have to allow it.”
Cranmer is not sure what Mr Purnell means by ‘equality of capability’, but it sounds
as though he is on the right lines.
Even as the Conservative Party considers permitting companies to profit in the provision of education, they are adamant that there is to be ‘no return to selection’. With 167 grammar schools still functioning, it is unclear why they talk about ‘return’. Selection has never entirely left us because the ‘pushy’ parents in some staunchly Conservative English counties (and Northern Ireland) demand it. And these schools lead the league tables: Northern Ireland leads the United Kingdom. And those counties where grammar schools exist will be given the right to create more grammar schools as populations expand, thereby perpetuating the school / house-price injustice.
The problem with the grammar / secondary-modern division is that it is too crude and simplistic for the postmodern area: it is just wrong to divide children into sheep and goats at the age of 11. The perception of success for the élite and failure for the rest is too unjust for mollycoddled Wii generation for whom appearance is all. And perhaps, like democracy, it always was imperfect. But with the return of access determined by wealth, it has become unjust.
And so Cranmer has a solution. There needs to be a tripartite system of secondary education quite independent of the state. Those gifted with academic ability should be educated in accordance with the grammar philosophy; those gifted with practical ability should be educated in accordance with the needs of their vocation; and those gifted with the ability for either must be educated such that their learning permits them the liberty to choose. For ability is as diverse as nature, and there is more in the ‘centre’ than exists at the extremities. Parents should indeed be given vouchers to spend in the school of their choice, but the school must be able to assert its choice provided the selection criterion is academic ability alone. And, curricula permitting, children would be free to move between schools, ending the primacy and finality of the 11+. Free of state interference, these schools would be free to pay teachers as they wish (and therefore more in a challenging environment), specialise, innovate, personalise and develop a unique ethos. And they must also be free to expand, for why limit the model of success? Indeed, if they are not to expand, oversubscription makes unjust selection a necessity.
It beggars belief that the same questions once posed by the great Dr Thomas Arnold are still being asked two centuries on. Real progress can only come from irrevocable reform. The only solution to the present delinquent educational tyranny is the removal of state control and the infuriating interference of the politicians, and the introduction of competition, selection and vouchers. And once parents get a taste of that, no democratic government would dare contemplate removing it.