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.