At 11am today, Radio Four looks at the Tory school reform plan – inspired, apparently, by our recent cover story on Cameron’s schools revolution. I’m on the panel of Talking Politics, Dennis Sewell is hosting and my fellow panellists are Michael White from the Guardian and Anne McElvoy from the Evening Standard. We pre-recorded on Thursday, and I found myself in the unusually position of being a cheerleader for a Tory proposal. Michael said my youthful idealism set alarm bells off with him. CoffeeHousers have made a similar point – I’m becoming “ever more messianic” said TGF UKIP. So why am I so het up?
Education stirs passions in politics. Labour MPs who benefited from selective state education (Brown and Balls) normally make it their mission to deny this to everyone else. Tories who enjoyed selective education (too many to mention) are equally enthusiastic about extending it to everyone else – hence the huge rebellion over the decision not to roll out the grammar schools model. The few who enjoyed private education at the state’s expense (Adonis and myself) are keen to allow others to take up what is, essentially, a voucher scheme. In my enthusiasm, however, I am not chasing an ideal. The beauty of the education debate is that it’s moved way beyond theory. From Chile to New Zealand, the voucher system is up, running and working. The Gove proposal has been hardened by work from Policy Exchange into a robust plan that would not (as the Blair/Adonis plan did) stumble on the rocks of backbench rebellion and the English planning system.
Is there an appetite in Britain for this choice agenda? As Dennis Sewell asked me, would the poor be able to cope with all this choice of schools that the Tories propose? To answer that question, I refer you to the heartbreaking story in the Hartlepool Mail yesterday, followed by a few papers today. It’s about parents, James and Stella Coils, who are willing to give up their ten-year-old daughter and have her live with her aunt to get her into a better school in a better catchment area. They ended up with their fourth choice of state school (where fewer than a third get five decent GCSEs), and couldn’t face it. The richest handle a vast choice of private schools very well. The affluent can afford to do this buying a house in a better catchment area. Those who can afford neither end up like James and Stella Coils, sending their child away to live with a relative. The desire to do the best by one’s child is perhaps the strongest human emotion – and it is this power the Tory system would harness by allowing a new breed of smaller, independent but state-financed schools. Rarely has an Opposition policy offered such radical, plausible change which could set in so quickly. If Cameron gets this right (still, I grant you, a big ‘if’) then it will be his legacy. The likes of James and Stella Colis can’t wait through a fourth Labour term. That is why there is, I believe, an urgent case for this policy to be introduced.