The Conservatives think that education is about selecting the lucky few, says Ed Balls. But there is no reason why excellence and opportunity shouldn’t be for all
It’s just over a year since David Willetts made his thoughtful but ultimately fatal pronouncement: ‘academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it’. Those nine words — anathema to most Conservatives — led to a civil war inside the party, a messy U-turn and the reshuffling of Mr Willetts to a new job.
The issue of whether the Tories would change the law and support new grammar schools being built — such as the one being proposed in Buckinghamshire — remains unresolved. So far the shadow schools secretary Michael Gove has carefully avoided giving a clear answer that would reopen last summer’s wounds — though we keep asking.
I won’t dwell on the grammar schools row — but the question of whether you should seek to entrench advantage and opportunity or spread it more widely remains the crucial debate in education policy today. On each of our key reforms — education to 18, diplomas, school admissions, raising standards and tackling underperforming schools — there is a clear difference between the two main parties: between a Conservative front bench determined to preserve excellence for some, and our progressive commitment actively to promote and pursue excellence for all.
Take our plans to raise the education and training age to 18, an aspiration first set out in the 1918 Fisher Act. In fact, it was prefigured a decade earlier when, during the Christmas holidays of 1908, a 34-year-old Winston Churchill wrote to the then prime minister, Herbert Asquith, recommending a series of policies. Among the neglected suggestions was making education compulsory to the age of 17.
A century on the case is rather more compelling. The modern global economy, which will see further falls in the number of unskilled jobs and greater competition from the likes of India and China, demands that we develop the potential and talents of every young person. Long gone are the days when many young people could leave school at 16 and work up to a successful career with no further learning or training. That’s why we are pushing through reforms to ensure that everybody is in some form of education — school, college, work with training or an apprenticeship — until 18.
But in Parliament the Tories have tried to wreck our legislation by saying the policy should not apply to all young people. Education to 18 should not be for everybody, they say. It’s just too hard to get to 100 per cent and you shouldn’t even aspire to it. Instead of demanding that the system delivers for everybody — especially those for whom some say it’s too hard, the most vulnerable young people who all too often fall through the cracks — the Conservatives make excuses. Excellence and opportunity is fine for some — just not for everyone if it is too difficult.
The same is true of the debate over our new diploma qualifications which will combine practical and theoretical learning in subjects like engineering and IT as well as science and languages. Backed and designed by employers, they are our country’s best chance for decades to end the old, damaging and false divide between academic qualifications which are seen as excellent and vocational learning which is perceived to be second class.
Yet for the Conservatives, diplomas ‘undermine academic excellence’. They think diplomas should just be second class qualifications for those who cannot do A-levels, rather than excellent qualifications that will allow entry to an apprenticeship or to a top university.
Curiously, what the Tories now call ‘fantasy qualifications’ once had the support of the shadow chancellor George Osborne. He called, just three years ago, for ‘an over-arching diploma which brings together academic and vocational training into one single diploma which we support, the Conservative party supports, and I think would help end this deeply damaging gap between academic qualifications and vocational training’. Sadly Mr Gove disagrees.
The recent debates over school admissions are just as revealing. In April my department published information on dozens of schools who were flouting the admissions code, including by still using parental interviews, giving preference to family members other than siblings, asking for ‘voluntary’ donations as part of the admissions process or not giving children in care the correct priority.
The admissions code — the law of the land, which was introduced at the time with cross-party support in Parliament — outlaws all covert means of selection. The code is there to ensure a level playing field and the principle behind it is simple — parents and pupils should choose schools, not the other way round.
A handful of commentators, including Irwin Stelzer on these pages last month, have criticised my support for the code by essentially arguing for a return to selection and the 11-plus. At least they had the courage to say so. Many others, including the intelligent Mr Gove, instead mounted a disingenuous attack against this action to ensure fair admissions. In opposing what we did so strongly, Mr Gove was effectively giving a green light to covert selection in state schools.
My critics said that instead of ensuring fair admissions, I ought to focus solely on raising school standards. The Conservative reaction against enforcing the admissions code suggests that they believe there is an inevitable tension between fairness and excellence. They think education is fundamentally about selecting the lucky few and making sure they can get into the best schools. That the Tories believe this, but do not want openly to say so, is why they are in such a mess over their policy on grammar schools.
But I do not believe there is any reason at all why we should not pursue both objectives at the same time: fair admissions for all families and excellent schools in every community.
That’s why this week I launched the next phase of the government’s school improvement strategy — National Challenge. Young people need good qualifications. And having reduced the number of schools with less than 30 per cent of their pupils getting five or more good GCSEs including English and maths from 1,610 in 1997 — over half of schools — to less than a quarter today, it’s now right to take a more systematic approach to the 638 that remain below the threshold.
Backed by £400 million of investment, we will offer extra support for all these schools, many of whom are already on the path to success, as well as more radical interventions for those that need it, including closure and replacement with an academy or linking up with successful schools through a trust or federation.
We know schools can succeed even in the most difficult circumstances. As well as good leadership, the quality of teaching is a vital ingredient of successful schools. That’s why our Teach First programme is getting some of the best graduates into some of our most challenging schools. And it’s why the new Masters in Teaching and Learning will be made available in National Challenge schools as we seek to make teaching a masters level profession.
But I can’t run all these schools from Whitehall. It’s the proper job of local authorities to be the strategic commissioners of education in their area. That’s why I’ve asked local authorities to draw up improvement plans for every National Challenge school in their area by the end of the summer term.
We will back local authorities and work with them to do everything it takes to get all these schools on the right path to sustained success. However, where it’s necessary, I will not hesitate to step in and intervene directly with schools or local authorities. < /p>
The alternative to this systematic approach which is locally driven, but steps in from the centre when necessary, is the Conservatives’ so-called ‘Swedish model’ with new schools and surplus places springing up wherever a willing group of parents or sponsor comes forward. Unlike the government’s successful academies programme, the new schools will not replace existing ones, nor be targeted at areas of greatest need or planned in any way, and would divert £4.5 billion of capital spending from areas currently expecting new investment to rebuild schools.
It’s unclear how the Tories would fund the revenue costs of their promised 220,000 ‘additional’ school places over the next nine years. If they’re genuinely additional places, they would cost billions. If they’re not, then existing schools face severe funding cuts as pupils move to the new schools. David Cameron’s schools reforms deserve proper scrutiny: they’re no way to guarantee improvements in the poorest performing schools, but a recipe for cuts and chaos.
So the education debate between the parties is not just about differences in the ends and goals — the pursuit of excellence for all versus the preservation of excellence for some. It’s about the means of getting there too. It’s not as simple as the old central versus local debate, but about whether you intervene and drive change in the system or stand back and hope for the best.
The question is simple: do you act and use all the levers at your disposal to spread opportunity and pursue excellence for all or do you seek to preserve excellence only for some? Put another way: do you entrench advantage or do you spread it?