Suella Fernandes is the newly-elected MP for Fareham and a member of the Education Select Committee.
Aspiration is the buzzword of the day. One reason why we won the General Election was that we captured this zeitgeist and embodied its spirit through our policies. But what does it actually mean? For me, education is the engine of aspiration. We say to every child that it doesn’t matter where you start in life. You can get ahead through self-empowerment, taking responsibility and service. And nowhere do those values resonate more loudly than in our schools.
In 2010 when I read that, in the UK, one in five pupils were leaving school at 16 functionally illiterate or innumerate, less than a third achieve the basic five GCSE grades necessary to access further education and only 16 per cent of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds go on to university, as opposed to 96 per cent from private schools, I had to do something. In a country where we have some of the best schools in the world, this is shameful.
Disraeli once wrote about “two nations between whom there is no intercourse or sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets”. He was, of course, talking about the 19th century inequality between the rich and the poor. But the same sentiment can be used to describe the disparity between some of our state schools and private schools today: where postcode lotteries dictate the life chances of our children or where parental income determines whether a child can read or write by the end of their compulsory education.
I was brought up in Wembley, just on the threshold of inner city and leafy London suburb. I started my education in the early ’80s attending the local state school where the teachers would go on strike – every other week at one point – where discipline was lax and where little Sammy would get away with disrupting the class whilst diligent pupils were left to get on with it. After several years, my parents got fed up and took the tough decision to send me to a small independent girls’ school, made possible by considerable sacrifice on their part and a scholarship. The traditional, dare I say, ‘old-fashioned’ education of rote learning, poetry, latin, house groups, healthy competition between peers, zero tolerance on unruly behaviour, clear teacher authority and parental involvement, was a gift and I blossomed, gained a place to read law at Cambridge, attended the Sorbonne and worked as barrister for ten years. As you can imagine, my parents, who had immigrated to Britain from East Africa in the 1960s with nothing, were very pleased with their decision.
None of this would not have been possible without the quality, discipline and high expectations inherent in the culture of that school. It was indeed, a tale of two cities, two planets.
One of the reasons I am so proud to be a Conservative is that we are the only party courageous enough to talk honestly about failing schools and tackle the problem head on. And we have done that by giving local people a say in the solution. Teachers are wonderful but endemic weaknesses in the system stop our children getting the best. Free schools, traditional curricula, more rigorous examinations and clean-sweeping OFSTED are all part of the Gove and Morgan reforms which are heralding a new era for British schools. Last week’s debate in the House of Commons on the Education and Adoption Bill bolsters these reforms by granting the Department for Education powers to swiftly intervene in failing and coasting schools.
I teamed up with Katharine Birbalsingh, an inspirational teacher (now headteacher) and, with other volunteer teachers, set up a Free School, Michaela Community School, where I am Chairman of the Board of Governors. Our objective is simple: to bring a private school quality to the inner city. After designing our vision of a rigorous, knowledge-based curriculum we secured approval and government funding, recruited staff, chose the uniform and found a building in Wembley. In September 2014, Michaela Community School opened its doors to 120 12-year-olds and is transforming their lives.
Many of the children come from local council estates or Harlesden or Willesden and have the chance to aim high because of inspired and innovative teaching which emphasises knowledge, memory, competition and discipline. Walk through the corridors and you will hear the drop of a pin for Michaela pupils are busy working quietly in the classrooms. Join them for lunch and you will see how politely the pupils serve their guests before themselves. Take a local bus and you will identify a Michaela pupil by his or her impeccable uniform. Boris Johnson visited the school this week and, after sitting in on lessons, commented that the quality of French was better than that of many undergraduates. Whether it is the practice of ‘appreciations’, the echoes of recited French alphabets or the pupils telling one guest that he really didn’t want term to end for the Christmas holidays because he loved school so much, Michaela is tackling the root cause of social inequality in this country.
The school was only made possible because committed individuals, not the state, saw a need and took action. This freedom to innovate and create is at the heart of the Free School movement and essential to inject choice and competition into our schools so that standards rise and we don’t have a country of two nations. So that aspiration is a reality for all.