The Queen’s first Conservative speech for 13 years
She may be disappointed that hunting with hounds is not to be decriminalised and that her sovereignty is not to be at least partly restored in a bust-up with the foreign princes and potentates in Brussels, but, make no mistake about it, this is a Tory speech.
With a bit of Whig thrown in.
And it contains a very great deal which ought to delight Conservatives.
But it is the Academies Bill for 'free schools' which is the jewel in the crown.
Cranmer has long been of the opinion that if education reform were the only fruit of the next Conservative government, it alone would qualify David Cameron as one of the greatest reforming prime ministers in history. There is a desperate need to reform the sclerotic, statist, bureaucratic and deficient system of education in this country, and this Bill will do it. Of course, much of the donkey work has been done by Michael Gove, but it is the nature of leadership to take the credit, steal the limelight and bask in the glory.
The decision to restore the Department for Education is symbolic of the revolution. It is heartening that His Grace was heeded on the matter.
Gone is the touch-feely ministry for children, school, families, breast-feeding and nappy-changing. Gone are the trendy teaching methods which have produced the most illiterate and innumerate school leavers since state education was established. Gone are the days of placing the opinions of ‘experts’ above the learning needs of pupils. Gone is the Marxist bland uniformity of the comprehensive system. Gone are the meaningless mantras of ‘excellence for all’ and ‘all must have prizes’. And gone is the curse of equality of outcome over equality of opportunity.
David Cameron is introducing a reform by which every pupil might experience the sort of rigorous academic programme envisaged by Plato. Intrinsic to this is a reform of school league tables and the deregulation of state qualifications which will permit schools to opt for IGCSEs and the IB instead of the increasingly debased GCSEs and A-levels.
When you stop controlling and forcing initiatives on people, far more happens.
The Academies Bill is one of the most liberating and empowering pieces of legislation ever: it is the logical continuation of the Thatcher revolution. But while she democratised industry, the stock market and home-owning, she stopped short of giving choice to NHS patients and empowering parents to educate their children in the school and with the curriculum they wished.
John Major toyed with NHS and education vouchers, but he was never in a political position of strength to implement the policy.
Tony Blair and Lord Adonis understood the problem, and their academies were an important politico-philosophical achievement quite at variance with Labour’s (and Gordon Brown's) centralising and controlling instincts.
The Academies Bill builds on this foundation, and it amounts to the partial privatisation of state education. It will permit teachers and parents and other groups to establish schools which will be independently run but financed by the state. The schools will compete in a free market: those which succeed will expand; those which fail will close or be subject to take-over bids.
This will complement the present privilege of the rich to educate their children in the best independent schools. And it will be irreversible: once you grant parental choice and school competition, there is no remote possibility of a political party ever proposing to wrest that choice back from voting parents.
It is worth observing that the average cost to the tax-payer of putting a child through state education is in excess of £9,000 per annum. But the school sees nothing like this, as layers of local bureaucracy cream off thousands to perpetuate their own bland, uniform and petty agendas.
By granting parents what amounts to a voucher for the full £9,000, they will be at liberty to shop around until they find somewhere they wish to spend it. The money follows the pupil, with ‘premiums’ payable to schools who take ‘problem’ pupils or who wish to serve deprived areas. And this sum is broadly equivalent to the average annual fees for an independent day school: there is no reason why the quality of education provision and class sizes in the Free Schools may not be identical to those achieved by independent schools. And headteachers will at last be free to pay their teachers whatever it takes to keep them: the ending of the NUT’s national pay-bargaining ranks right up there with Thatcher’s defenestration of the NUM.
This policy cannot fail, even though the LEAs will do their damndest to object and hinder, and teaching unions will threaten strikes and disruption. But the moment parents are at liberty to choose the school that is right for their child, with class sizes and a curriculum which are conducive to good learning, with rigorous exams and no grade inflation, we will wonder why we did not do it sooner.
Like any Bill, it will require future amendments to permit pupil selection and profit-making, but this is a very important start. The results will not, of course, be seen for years. But they will come, and they will be worth waiting for.
The Conservative Party may not have won a majority, and the victory was not ours. But if the Free Schools Bill were all that Her Majesty had to announce today, it would be sufficient for those who have vision.