Education may be the jewel in the crown

The Conservative Manifesto contains a bundle of great policies, but for my money, the best of the bunch (apart from our commitments on the EU) is Michael Gove’s education policy.
 
The first step in solving a problem is to recognise that we have a problem.  Of course Labour is in denial.  In their strange world (the best of all possible worlds?), education gets better and better.  It must do — aren’t they spending unprecedented sums of money on it?  Aren’t exam results getting better every year (or at least most years)?  They don’t deny that there may still be room for improvement, but they believe that with “one last heave” – much more money, a few more tick-boxes – our education system will be perfect.
 
But consider:
 
Around 20% of school leavers today are functionally illiterate and innumerate.  Standards were actually higher (believe it or not) in Victorian England, before the introduction of free primary education with the 1891 Education Act.  In 100+ years, standards have dropped.
 
While exam results continue to inflate, universities and employers complain that they are obliged to offer remedial classes, where school leavers can catch up on what they should have learned in school.  I’d rather trust universities and employers than Labour’s exam results.
 
International comparison tables show UK pupils slipping down the rankings in maths, science and a wide range of subjects

 
I was lucky enough to go to a Grammar School in the fifties (King Edward VI, Southampton), and to Cambridge in the sixties, and I believe I got an excellent education.  There was an unquestioning commitment to academic excellence.  Today schools seemed to be concerned with a huge range of social issues – sex education, anti-racism, obesity awareness – but academic excellence is suspect, and is called élitism (as though there were something wrong with doing well).  Labour has introduced specific policies that favour social engineering over academic quality, in university admissions.
 
The system is broke, and we need to fix it.  By the way I don’t blame teachers, or heads, or governors — and least of all pupils.  I blame an academic educational establishment that since the sixties has favoured modish theories over common sense, and a Labour Party that believes that a combination of money, and a welter of centralised diktats, can solve all problems.  It can’t.  So Gove and his colleagues have been prepared to look around the world for best practice.  They’ve come up with a range of ideas, but at the heart of the policy is the idea of removing the dead hand of government and local authorities, making the money follow the pupil, and allowing non-traditional players, including (if they choose to do so) parent groups, to open schools.  These schools will of course be expected to deliver certain standards, but within those standards they will have considerable autonomy over teaching methods, admissions, and the school ethos they will seek to create.  Then parents and children can choose schools according to results, and to their own preferences.  Good schools will flourish, bad schools will shape up or close down, and critically there will be competitive pressure across all schools to raise standards.  That at least has been the experience, for example, in Sweden, which Gove is taking as a model.
 
Of course competition may be seen as a threat to the producer interest, so it may not be too surprising that a group of 51 Head Teachers, orchestrated by Labour, has written to the Guardian (where else?) criticising Conservative plans.  They complained of “boutique experiments based on naïve educational tourism”.  Seen as a dismissive rhetorical flourish, this is little short of brilliant.  Ten out of ten.  But as serious academic analysis, it scarcely scrapes a C minus.  The fact is that we have a failing education system which is surely one of the greatest long-term threats to British competitiveness.  We have not just a right, but a duty, to scour the world for best practice, for ideas that work.  Labour is failing in that duty.  Top marks, therefore, to Michael Gove.
 
The problem (as so often with centre-right policies) is that the solution is counter-intuitive, and therefore not an easy sell.  I quite understand those vox pop interviews where busy housewives have been horrified at the idea that they might have to organise a school.  Don’t they have enough work to do already?  Don’t we pay through our taxes for someone else to do that?  But of course there will be no obligation on anyone to set up a school.  They will be set up by groups of parents who choose to do so — who are not content with current provision, and who have the vision and determination to make a difference.  (One thinks of the parents of the estimated 30,000 or so children currently taught at home).  But in addition to parents’ groups, there will no doubt be charities, religious groups, social entrepreneurs and even (whisper it quietly) businesses, who see opportunities in new schools (though initially they will all be not-for-profit).
 
The arguments against: won’t this all create “a postcode lottery”?  But as Michael Gove says, we already have a postcode lottery – and we deny any remedy to parents served by poor schools.  Will it only benefit the sharp-elbowed middle classes, while to poor suffer?  No.  The experience of voucher systems in the US was that they were most popular with the poor and disadvantaged, who saw education as the only way out of the ghetto.  Will it “take money from mainstream schools and create surplus places”?  It will only take money from schools where parents have chosen to move children to a better school, and a few surplus places will create the elbow-room for parental choice.
 
The most naïve criticism comes (as you might expect) from the Lib Dems, who insist that parents don’t want choice – they just want to be assured that their neighbourhood school is a good school.  Of course they do.  But what the Lib-Dems can’t or won’t see is that diversity of provision, and parental choice, are the mechanism that will raise standards across the board.  They are the best way to ensure that every neighbourhood school is indeed a good school.  And who knows.  Some of those parent groups may decide to open a Grammar School.

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