After the educational policy crisis in 2007, the Conservative Party placed the issue in hibernation. Education was a non-event at the Party Conference. Since then the shadowy shape of what passes for a definitive policy that the electorate can understand is slowly beginning to emerge. Its central premise seems to be political rather than educational. The claimed political requirement to deny Labour any electoral opportunity seems to have outweighed any determination to drastically reform the catastrophic effects of the comprehensive system which, with some exceptions, is patently failing. Indeed, what is currently being offered are administrative changes to reduce political control at local level and a small school initiative to create a much greater number of smaller schools at the expense of the vast increase in the number of big schools (1000 pupils+) under Labour.
The party document “Repair Plan for Social Reform” contains much analysis and comment on the existing defects in the present education system that are sensible and accurate, but it fails to address the central weakness of the comprehensive system, namely, its all ability non-selective intake. All ability intake is the defining criteria for comprehensive education and is the major reason for the “Big School” concept. In order to provide both the staff and the subject range for an all ability intake spanning those requiring remedial teaching to those capable of A star results in A level physics or maths, the school has to be “big”. Many comprehensives do not even offer A level teaching in physics, chemistry, or even modern languages because they do not have a sufficient number of pupils suitable for these subjects at A level standard. When the Conservative policy is one that merely tolerates the existing 164 grammar schools, and sets its face against opening any new ones and dedicates itself to New Academies that are NON SELECTIVE, it is supporting comprehensive education, and failing to address the central problem of all ability intake.
Paradoxically it is difficult to appreciate how smaller non selective
schools can offer the range of subjects and quality of teaching that
caused the increase of big comprehensives in the first place. Smaller
schools will undoubtedly cure some of the big school problems such as
discipline, time tabling, and teacher pupil relationships, but it may
well be in exchange for even greater ones. The Swedish model for
smaller schools fits very well with a largely one class society with a
greater level of pupil respect for adult authority whether of teacher
or parent, but it is highly questionable as a cure for failing inner
city comprehensives. There the problems are socio-economic,
non-aspirational parents and an ethos of pop culture celebrity and
The dumbing down of examinations, the massaging of results and the
failure to distinguish between the value of A levels in proportion to
the difficulty of the subject are all products of a policy necessary to
obscure the failure of a State education system based on schools with
an all ability intake. As result, parental choice is being denied,
social mobility is being reduced and the flow of able children from the
disadvantaged sections of society to the top universities has
significantly declined. Almost every educational objective sought by
the Conservative Party in its “Repair” prospectus is already present in
our existing grammar schools; but the principle of selective education
is like the elephant in the Conservative Party’s drawing room which it
seems determined to ignore.
With an average ten applicants for each grammar school place, is it not
time for the Conservative Party to accept that permitting a new state
grammar school to be opened where parents wish it is not an electoral
minus but a plus? It would certainly be a plus for education.
Under Labour, England’s remaining grammar schools are under continuing
attack. Under-funding, closure, consolidation, and amalgamation are
all strategies to reduce the number of grammar school places. The
Conservative Party owes a duty to aspirational parents of all classes
to protect those places and to afford such parents a choice to have
their children taught to a level consistent with their ability.