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.