In May 2007, I was inspired to write my first ever article for ConservativeHome on a subject that went to the very heart of why I became a Conservative – grammar schools.
Arguments over the future of selective education have been some of the very liveliest in our Party in recent decades, predating even the long-running and painful internal debate on our membership of the EU.
Not long after taking power in 1997, Tony Blair’s government passed legislation to ban the introduction of new grammar schools, making clear that selective education was part of a past agenda. While many Conservatives eventually came to this way of thinking too, for those of us who benefited personally from a grammar school education it has always been harder fully to accept that such a route should not be open to younger generations of Britons.
It was therefore with delight that I greeted news that the Prime Minister is now considering the reintroduction of grammar schools as a key plank of our social justice agenda. Rereading my 2007 article after all these years, the arguments in favour of more grammar schools not only remain unchanged but the need to compete on the global stage, improve our productivity levels and reinvigorate deprived communities has got even more pressing.
At our best the Conservatives are the party of aspiration, opportunity and hope. We believe in choice because choice helps raise standards for all. Conservatives promote excellence, rather than equality. We want to see standards driven up to make the best available to everyone. This is in stark contrast to the Left, whose obsession with ‘fairness’ manifests itself in the levelling down of standards and opportunities to the lowest common denominator.
As a product of the grammar school system, I have been a lifelong supporter of selective education. Indeed it is probably the single most important cause of my becoming a Conservative. Grammar schools entrench excellence. There is little doubt that underachievement in lower socio-economic groups in England over the New Labour years, alongside poor productivity rates, correlates directly to the demise of grammar schools.
For sure, too many of the remaining grammar schools are in leafy suburbs rather than our inner cities. This is largely due to the dedicated efforts of articulate parents in the 1960s and 1970s preserving successful grammar schools against the tide of closures which wiped out most inner-city institutions. As a result, the attendance rolls of today’s grammar schools are dominated by the children of better-off, middle-class parents.
As an inner-city MP, however, I wish to see the opportunities that flow from educational excellence extended to my constituents. We implicitly committed ourselves to the notion of educational choice when we rolled out the free school programme under Michael Gove and I believe passionately that grammar schools must now be one option open to parents from a broad menu that includes high level technical and vocational training schools which work hand in glove with UK business. The commitment to and appetite for a quality education among inner city immigrant communities – I think particularly of the concentration of British Bangladeshi and Chinese families in my own constituency – is profound. In prioritising the rolling out of grammar schools in our most polarised neighbourhoods, we send a strong signal that it is the Conservative Party most committed to bridging the growing divide between those who can afford the best private schooling and the aspirant who wish to send their bright children to a school where they will be stretched academically.
It is all too easy to suggest that the debate about grammar schools and selective education is a throwback to an ideological battle of the past. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Like it or not, we now live in a highly competitive global economy in which nations such as India and China have become powerhouses. An ongoing cultural passion among these countries for the opportunities afforded by education risks leaving behind those countries not equally committed to academic success. It will also be increasingly important in post-Brexit Britain to reassure investors that we have a skilled, productive workforce, and a world-beating higher education sector able to draw from a talented pool of students fully prepared for university.
The bald fact is that the British education system is still not elitist enough. If this country is to thrive and not be left behind we need urgently to promote choice and excellence in our state schools.