It’s the main story on this morning’s Today programme and features in many of this morning’s newspapers: David Willetts’ belief that grammar schools don’t help the poor and that we’d be better to increase the number of City Academies.  A leader in The Telegraph is pretty mean about the speech – accusing ‘Two Brains Willetts’ of having at least one overheating brain.

In a speech that focuses on reversing the decline in social mobility Mr Willetts will say that grammar schools are no longer very effective in helping poorer children to succeed.  He presents a number of statistics to back up his argument.  Read a pdf of his 7,000 word speech here.  Mr Willetts will advocate five alternative policies:

  • Removal of the barriers that make it hard for social entrepreneurs to set up new state schools;
  • Encouragement of more schools to become Academies by ending the requirement for sponsors to contribute £2m;
  • "A single Academy contract for multiple schools to make it easier for outside providers to run nationwide networks of schools within the maintained sector";
  • A new emphasis on whole class teaching, streaming, setting and robust discipline "so we can show that even in our toughest areas, traditional teaching works";
  • Experimental teaching methods are examined more rigorously before becoming accepted in a large number of schools.

Speaking to ConservativeHome this morning the Shadow Education Secretary admitted that the policy was "untidy".  Existing grammar schools would face no threat from a Conservative government and would be allowed to expand.  What would not be permitted, however, in a policy that contradicts the party’s emphasis on localism and choice, would be for social entrepreneurs to set up a new grammar school in a poorer area.  Norman Blackwell of the Centre for Policy Studies, interviewed for this morning’s Today programme, said that he deeply regretted the new Tory policy.  The former Head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, Lord Blackwell said that there was strong evidence that high ability children fare much better in the selective system and there should be more opportunities for high ability kids from poorer backgrounds to be able to attend grammar schools.

A poll in January last year found that 73% of Tory members disagreed with their party’s opposition to new grammar schools although 49% understood that it might be good politics.

Where ConservativeHome can welcome the Tory leadership’s approach to social mobility is in its emphasis on the family.  Here is a key section of Mr Willetts’ speech:

"We all talk about family breakdown as if somehow it is evenly spread.   We are not being honest with ourselves.  The evidence assembled so powerfully by Iain Duncan-Smith’s Social Justice Commission, is that poorer families are far more fragile.  Meanwhile, middle-class parents invest far more effort in raising their kids than they did a generation ago.  My parents didn’t spend time driving me around to tennis coaching or music lessons (and I didn’t love them any the less for that).  Nowadays, middle-class kids get all that and more, and probably extra tuition to help them do well in the exams at 11. This growing difference between families is a theme to which I will return in a speech next month."

If ConservativeHome is disappointed at today’s announcement, we’ll try and be more positive about next month’s speech on the family.

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