When people look back on the Conservative revival under David Cameron, I am sure that this week will be seen as a significant milestone along the way.
The argument about grammar schools, and the firm way in which David Cameron has faced down his critics is, above all else, a measure of the Party’s renewed seriousness about preparing for Government. In the past, the call for more grammar schools was a comfort blanket for Tories, giving us emotional satisfaction while avoiding the hard question of how to raise standards and increase opportunities for all our children.
When David Cameron encouraged David Willetts to re-examine education policy from first principles, it was vital to ask a rather obvious question: if grammar schools are such a sure-fire mechanism for improving Britain’s educational system why didn’t the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major reintroduce them? After all, eighteen years in government is an awfully long time to sit on a great idea.
The reason isn’t hard to find when you look for it. Grammar schools can only ever help a minority. For those pupils talented enough to get into them, grammars can provide a first class academic education and in the small number of areas of Britain where they still exist there is no doubt that they are well-regarded. However, dividing everyone into separate schools at the age of 11 on the basis of a single test seems an imperfect mechanism for getting the best out of every child.
Instead, a future Conservative government will focus on improving all of
Britain’s schools. Our vision is simple. We want good local schools
that will have the positive aspects of grammars – firm discipline,
strong head teachers, academic emphasis, a competitive ethos – while
avoiding the socially divisive consequences of the 11+.
This is not some unattainable dream. In fact, I would put forward the
comprehensive school I attended in Yorkshire as a model for what we’re
committed to achieving. It was a proper neighbourhood school attended
by kids from every background and all parts of the community but there
was never any question of dumbing down or low expectations. Learning
was taken seriously and setting and streaming were the norm.
Competitive sport was an integral part of the curriculum and discipline
was enforced. Anyone who broke the rules soon regretted it!
Working out what makes a good school isn’t rocket science but there’s
room for variety. The remaining few grammar schools will not be
abolished by central government – indeed they should be safeguarded.
The Conservative Party believes in giving local communities more power
to make decisions. That includes the right to decide what kind of
schools they want. If the people of Kent, for example, prefer to keep
grammar schools then that is a matter for them.
As a result of this week’s row people have learned more about our
education policy. They also know more about David Cameron. They know
that he is cool and determined under fire and wins by making his case
in a calm and convincing way. They know that he is loyal and
steadfast in backing colleagues under attack. They know that he is
undoubtedly someone who leads rather than follows his Party.
Above all else the public can see that the Conservatives are genuinely
preparing for government. That is why our policies are not made on the
hoof. Nor are they designed merely to please Party activists. They
are built to last because they are very likely to be tested in practice.
Britain faces huge challenges in the coming decades and it is becoming
more obvious by the day that the Labour Party is incapable of meeting
them. Gordon Brown has spent ten years driving the domestic political
agenda and the disastrous consequences of that, in our schools, our
hospitals and our streets are plain to see. For Mr Brown now to
present himself as the new broom that will sweep clean the mess of the
last decade is an illusion.
The real alternative to Labour mismanagement and stagnation is a
completely fresh start with the Conservatives. It is clear to ever
more people in the country that David Cameron is serious about changing
the Conservative Party and giving it clear leadership. It is time he
was given the chance to do the same for Britain.
Return to YourPlatform at noon today for an essay from James O’Shaughnessy making a centre right case against more academic selection. Update: Now published.