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 all. 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 the underachievement in lower socio-economic groups in England over recent decades correlates directly to the demise of grammar schools.
The contention by the current shadow Education Secretary, David Willetts, that ‘grammar schools entrench social advantage’ is simply wrong. Indeed if the elimination of social advantage in the education system is to lie at the heart of new Conservative schools policy, then presumably plans should be afoot for our Party to close down private schools forthwith.
I am deeply ashamed that the Conservatives have come forward with this shallow gimmick of a ‘policy’ which betrays a lack of confidence in promoting Conservative principles in this crucial area of public policy.
If modern Conservatism cannot reconcile the benefits of a grammar school education being more widely available, it will surely only be a matter of time before we water down our commitment to maintaining the 164 grammar schools that have survived decades of muddle-headed egalitarian thinking. 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 grammar schools.
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, I wish to see the entrenchment of advantage and education excellence extended to my constituents. Let’s bring it on with a commitment to greater choice, whether grammar schools or academies, in our cities.
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. The emergence of the two economic superpowers of the near future, India and China, will have profound effects especially in the field of education. The cultural passion for the opportunities afforded by top class education lies close to the heart of many of the 2.5 billion living in those huge nations. Even today many of Britain’s leading schools and colleges open their doors to a large number of Chinese and Indian students. This will be a flood in the decades ahead and the demand will be for highest quality education. The bald fact is that the British education system is not elitist enough. If this country is to thrive and not be left behind we need urgently to promote choice and excellence in all our schools.