Theresa May’s bold and refreshing education speech last Friday has understandably triggered an explosion of forthright opinion on grammar schools. Beneath the headlines on selection, however, was an overlooked message to universities.
Bursaries for disadvantaged children to go to the top universities are a belated antidote to poor quality primary and secondary education, the Prime Minister suggested, and as a consequence could only go so far in addressing problems of social mobility. Instead, universities must further engage in building the capacity of the school system so that more students of all backgrounds have the grades, skills and confidence to compete for top university places on merit, not by fulfilling quotas. Over £400 million is spent annually on bursaries and other financial support for students, money that could in part be funnelled into university-run free school chains or university-sponsored academies.
Just as universities have long complained that they cannot fix the shortcomings of poor schooling, so employers have admitted that they would far rather opt for skilled migrant labour than poorly-trained home-grown workers. If our new education pitch unashamedly aims to nurture the talents of every child, an improved academic offering must surely be accompanied by a more rigorous focus on practical and vocational skills for those not suited to a grammar education. After all, if we accept that universities should now be engaged at the earlier stages of a child’s education, why not employers too?
This debate has never been more important. Our impending withdrawal from the European Union opens us up to the trading opportunities of the wider world as well as to greater competition. If our economy is to thrive in future, we shall need a workforce on par academically with the school leavers of countries like India, China and Malaysia where there is an ongoing cultural passion for the opportunities afforded by education. Grammar schools which nurture the academically gifted will help on this front.
At the same time, however, a large number of Britons demand that the flow of workers from abroad be stemmed upon Brexit. This is not what many businesses or public sector employers want – typically they have become used to plucking the cheapest and most diligent workers from a large, diverse pool and fear that any changes to the free movement of labour will create profound skills shortages. If we are simultaneously to address widespread public concern about the cost of benefits, entrenched worklessness, low wages, and the scale of immigration while fulfilling employers’ demands, we shall need to tackle our indigenous skills shortage head-on. Ideally this might include an extension of the apprenticeship programme into schools long before children reach sixteen or the rolling out of top quality vocational and technical schools that recognise the talents and interests of those with practical leanings.
As the Prime Minister made clear, in reopening the debate on grammar schools we Conservatives seek not a return to the binary choices of the past but a more diverse school ecosystem that offers parents and children real choice, values alternative routes than academia and gives employers the workforce they want. All too many graduates are underemployed at a time when people with practical and vocational skills are in exceptionally high demand in the construction, hospitality and manufacturing industries and we struggle to fill vacancies for carers, computer coders and town planners. As we open the way for new grammar schools, let us not forget the need for a fresh generation of technical schools that work hand-in-glove with British business and teach financial management, business development and practical skills.
As the proud product of a grammar school, I have been a lifelong supporter of selective education. Indeed it is probably the single most important cause of my becoming a Conservative and inspired me to write my first ever ConservativeHome article back in May 2007. However I am under no illusion – their reintroduction will be politically sensitive and will not offer a comprehensive solution to all our economic needs over the coming decades.
The Prime Minister wishes to see a fresh spirit of dynamic collaboration between private schools and the state sector, between universities and primary and secondary educators and among grammar and non-grammar schools as part of her approach to education. If we are to convince the nation that our policy works for the twenty-first century, this spirit of collaboration must also extend to UK businesses who will need to be much more involved in the creation of excellent new technical and vocational schools. Some children have a keen aptitude for academic learning, others a passion for caring, designing, building or inventing. Sustained engagement between employers and educators will open students’ eyes to the sheer variety of the modern-day workplace and give direction to those who are put off by higher education and want to get on with earning a wage.
We implicitly committed ourselves to the notion of educational choice when we rolled out the free schools and academy programme. I believe passionately that the expansion of 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 closely with UK business. It is vital that we hear more from government on these options as the debate on meritocracy heats up in the coming months. Far from a throwback to the past, the public needs urgently to see that this welcome debate is about equipping us for a post-Brexit future.