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Whose schools are they anyway?

The principles at stake in this month’s votes are as important as the Bill itself is disappointing

11 March 2006

12:00 AM

11 March 2006

12:00 AM

As so often, Norman Tebbit has a point. ‘Three of my grandchildren have gone to grammar schools, as I did,’ he told the Observer recently. ‘Now it looks as if we are going to cut off that route in the interest of something probably called social cohesion. But we’re not going to cut off the route to go through Eton. Come on, chaps. Fair’s fair!’

Lord Tebbit is the opposite of chippy, a Tory Titan who helped to make the politics of envy disreputable. His point is not that private schools are bad — far from it — but that pupils at state schools deserve much better than the often scandalously poor education they receive. He is entitled to ask what Tony Blair (Fettes) and David Cameron (Eton) propose to do about it — given that both party leaders so strenuously reject a return to the 11-plus.

The fate of the Schools Bill, which is expected to reach the Commons on 15 March, has become a test of Tony Blair’s authority. No less than Tessa Jowell’s travails, the strength of opposition to the proposals is now symbolic of the Prime Minister’s loosening grip.

The deeper significance of this legislation, however, is the impact it will have upon the educational prospects of children. At the outset, it must be conceded that the Bill has been appallingly diluted. The schools system needs shock therapy; the treatment on offer is homeopathic.

Even so, the Bill deserves the robust support of the Conservative party, and of all who wish to see that shock treatment administered in due course. In spite of the many concessions that the government has already made, the core principle at the heart of the legislation is laudable, and one which would at least set the schools system on a promising course.

At stake is no less a question than this: whose schools are they anyway? The Bill proposes a new category of independent ‘trust’ schools free of the dead hand of town hall control. It would enable such schools to nurture their own character and ethos, responsive to the needs of local parents rather than the ideology of municipal bureaucrats. It would engage the enthusiasm and enterprise of business and the voluntary sector. It is, above all, a start: no more, no less.

The clash of principles ahead, therefore, is as mighty as the legislation itself is timid. Parliament must choose between two utterly different paths: one which might lead, in time, to a liberalised education system in which schools enjoy true flexibility, and are able to serve local needs, and another in which bureaucrats, class warriors and ideologues dictate how our children are educated. It is shocking that more than half of those Labour MPs who signed the so-called ‘Alternative White Paper’ attacking the proposals enjoyed a selective education themselves. It is disgraceful that three quarters represent English seats with GCSE results below the national average. The choice is between municipal socialism and a modern system of education that encourages choice, diversity and excellence.

Mr Blair’s challenge is to get his legislation passed, by any means necessary. Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, has said that she is ‘very confident’ that the Bill will not require Conservative support. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, has made it clear that he is quite willing to rely on the Tories if necessary. That may hasten his departure. Mr Blair’s implicit reply is: so what?

For Mr Cameron, who completes his 100th day as leader on 16 March, the Bill is a challenge in two senses. First, he must resist those who claim that guerrilla warfare in the Commons can bring down Mr Blair. By conspiring with the Labour rebels to thwart the Bill, the Tories would sacrifice strategy to tactics. Mr Cameron’s own private polling has shown how much the voters dislike politicians who brazenly ditch their principles for short-term political gain.

This is an opportunity for the Conservatives to detach Mr Blair from Labour, support his measure as far as it goes, and signal to the electorate that the future of reform lies with a Conservative government. In what will be a ferocious legislative contest, the only question the Tories should ask is: how can we best and most visibly represent the interests of parents?

Secondly, Mr Cameron must answer Lord Tebbit’s question: what hope does he offer those children who were once so well served by grammar schools? The Tory leader has ruled out a return to the old 11-plus, alarmed lest the Conservative party be seen as a restorationist movement. It is encouraging that he is considering raising the cap on the proportion of pupils that specialist schools can select; presently set at the risible level of 10 per cent. He is right to call for more selection within schools, by streaming and setting. But — to achieve what he says he wants to — he will have to embrace a much greater radicalism on education.

This is an area of policy where Mr Cameron’s understandable desire to reassure the electorate must not govern every decision. Where schools are concerned, boldness will be his friend. In the weeks ahead, we shall discover how truly he grasps this.

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