Michael Gove's speech to Brighton College this week on the impact of schooling in promoting equality of opportunity was hard for Labour to refute. His speech encapsulates the argument for increasing equality of opportunity through levelling up, rather than the traditional socialist approach of levelling down.
Equality is the big spur for people to join the Labour Party – just as a belief in freedom, tradition and patriotism inspires people to join the Conservatives.
But what if the Labour Party wasn't terribly effective at promoting equality? Gove pointed out that one of the biggest divides is in outcomes for those who go to state schools versus those who go to independent ones. ("Will we ever see a comprehensive boy or girl edit the Guardian?" he asked. "Perhaps not in my lifetime.")
Driving up standards in state schools promotes equality. Among those I represent in Ravenscourt Park Ward the rich parents are already able to secure excellent education for their children by paying school fees. But now those parents who can't afford to pay can still achieve a great start for their children by sending them to the West London Free School.
Evidence shows that sponsored academies are improving at twice the rate of other schools, and have been doing so for a decade.
Across the whole Academies programme, rigorous research from the National Audit Office has shown that the attainment rate for FSM pupils in academies improved by 8.3 percentage points between 2009 and 2010 – almost double the national improvement rate for FSM pupils, 4.6
In other words, the best academies are driving up standards for those children who have the worst start in life almost twice as quickly as other schools. And they’re doing it by giving great heads in the state system the freedom you have in the independent sector – to concentrate on education not bureaucracy.
To take one minor but telling example: one head recently told my Department that since becoming an academy his senior staff have saved 43 days a year previously spent in “irrelevant” local authority meetings.
As well as converting and sponsored academies, Free Schools are being established and driving social mobility, particularly in areas where deprivation is high and parents are crying out for new schools – brilliant centres of innovation like King's Science Academy Bradford, The London Academy of Excellence, West London Free School and Norwich Free School.
Evidence from America has shown that new schools can bring dramatic improvements in school standards, especially schools for poorer children in poor areas.
And true to form, over a third of the 2011 Free School openers are located in the 20 per cent most deprived areas of the country – half in the 30 per cent most deprived areas.
Although it is too early to confirm, the majority of the groups seeking to open a Free School in 2012 or later have proposed sites which are in the 50 per cent most deprived areas of the country.
Of course there is an alternative way to promote equality. The levelling down approach. That would include outlawing independent schools. (Although to really achieve the egalitarian paradise there would have to be restrictions on people sending their children to be educated privately abroad.) Banning independent schools was in Labour's 1983 manifesto. That appears to be the personal view of Kevin Brennan, the Shadow Minister for Schools. But it is no longer official Labour policy.
It is only the Conservatives who have a credible policy to promote equality of opportunity.