Last Thursday, my elder daughter began her first week as a child of statutory school age. My younger daughter starts nursery at the same school today. It’s a major milestone which our little girls seem to be taking in their stride. However it has set me thinking once again about why I went into politics in the first place.
It was education. More precisely, the state of our public education system. When I was growing up the comprehensive experiment was in full swing and my father was warned by a friend of his in the teaching profesison to get me out quick if he possibly could. My father was not a wealthy man. He had a small and quite successful private solicitor’s practice in a Northern town but by no means was he made of money. But he took his friend’s advice and I spent the next 13 years in private schools. My Mum and Dad had to scrimp and save. We did not go on glamorous holidays as a family – Sandilands, Norfolk (before it became fashionable), Skegness. I was 8 before I was taken abroad, on a cheap package trip to the Costa del Sol. We had no colour telly until the early 1980s and neither of my parents spent much on clothes or cars. They viewed my education as their priority and I am very grateful for that.
Because the comprehensive experiment was a total and unmitigated failure. In 1975 only 25% of the intake at my old Oxford college had been educated privately. Over 50% came from grammar schools. By 2005 however the picture had changed. Some 56% now came from independant schools. Those schools, for the entire period from 1975 to 2005, consistently educated something in the region of 7% of the nation’s children. My old college has always sought to attract the best and has positively reached out to the comprehensive sector. It is just that the state schools no longer produce the best. Of course, those grammar schools that remain are still first class institutions. It is the comprehensives which have now failed two generations of British schoolchildren. Failures which once made can never be put right because the time lost in a failed school simply cannot be regained.
Of course the grammar school system was not without its failings, the most pernicious being the fact that, once you had failed the 11 plus it was virtually impossible to get back into the grammar school stream. Not all children can be at their best at the age of 11 – my own academic peak was reached in my early twenties – and the lack of flexibility would have condemned many bright children to a career of underachievement. Further, some comprehensives have instituted streaming which can neuter some of the worst aspects of mixed ability teaching. However, for so long as schools are obliged to accept the children allocated to them by the local education authority, and for so long as headmasters are prevented from instilling proper discipline, a cohort of children who do not want to be at school will always disrupt the lives of those who want to achieve, even if they are not sitting in the same classroom.
In another post I will discuss my political heroes but here I will list my two main political villains – Tony Crosland and Shirley Williams, the two Education Secretaries under Harold Wilson who promoted the comprehensive experiment. Margaret Thatcher did nothing to stop the tide in 1970-74, but at least she now regrets not appreciating the ramifications of what was happening. The Labour ministers however were true believers and classic exponents of the historic Labour / Socialist fault of swallowing a theory whole and then imposing it without ever considering the relationship between the theory and the truths of human nature. Comprehensivisation appealed to their obsession with egalitarianism and therefore was good and had to be imposed from above. No matter it had not been tried elsewhere. No matter that it involved taking a gamble on the futures of a generation. It was Progress and therefore good.
Forty years on and a new Conservative governement will have to try to sort out the mess. There is nothing more expressive of the “broken society” spoken of by David Cameon than our broken state education system. The Conservative answer involves permitting parents and local businesses to set up new schools free of LEA control. Unlike comprehensives, this system has been in place in Sweden for some 15 years and has worked – the new schools have also driven up the standards in the existing ones. Personally I would like the next Conservative government to take the next step and allow all these schools to select their pupils by whatever means they consider appropriate. That is not on the horizon as yet, but the proposed policy is still a good one all the same.
It is a scandal that here in Surrey, one of the wealthiest counties in England, there is a shortage of school places for the children living here. Most of the local schools are facing overcrowding and many parents are up in arms becasue they are being forced to send their children to schools that are miles away because the local one is full.
If I can play any part, however small, in improving the educational prospects of those children whose parents cannot afford private education or who cannot or do not want to move to the catchment area of a good school, I will have achieved something of which I could genuinely be proud.