David Willetts: You’re in a hole. Stop digging!

It would be nice to think you were listening, David

It would be nice to think you were listening, David

David Willetts is said by his friends to have “two brains”.  I just wish he’d engage at least one of them before opening his mouth.  His latest observations on education show a lack of both common sense, and of any understanding of basic conservative principles.

I have written before about the Coalition’s attempts to subvert university admissions in the interests of social engineering.  Willetts, ably abetted by Nick Clegg, starts out from the assumption that all students are created equal, and therefore that if any demographic group is under-represented in the student population, it must be the victim of disadvantage or discrimination.  From there, it is a short step to concluding that the government must do something (usually a bad move).

So far, the emphasis has been on children from poorer homes and from the state sector, though there has also been discussion of ethnic minorities and gender balance.  The government pressured universities to lower admissions standards so as to “broaden access”.  Let’s be clear about this: it means that less-well-qualified candidates will be preferred to better qualified candidates.  We can’t say it too often: that’s bad for quality and achievement; bad for our universities; bad for our economy; bad for our country; bad for able applicants who are rejected.

But it is also, if less obviously, bad for the less-qualified students who “benefit” from this “positive discrimination”.  They may struggle to keep up: they will be much more likely to drop out.  They may end up with a poor degree and no job, or flipping burgers.  And they will have spent a lot of money on fees, and be burdened by debt.  They could have done much better on a vocationally-oriented training programme or apprenticeship scheme.

But now, far from seeing the error of his ways, Willetts has identified yet another disadvantaged group — “working class white boys”.

(You may think that this group rather overlaps with “children from poorer homes”, but no matter).  Doesn’t Willetts, with his two brains, understand that if you identify every under-represented group, and discriminate positively in favour of all of them, you are, in fact, merely discriminating against the very people who should be going to university?  I say “should” for their own sakes, for the universities, for the country and for the economy.

The fact is that universities know a great deal more about their business than most politicians.  Anyone with conservative instincts would stand back and let them do what they do best — pursuing excellence, and running a rational admissions policy.

As Nigel Farage argued in a recent TV interview, Willetts would do better to focus his energy on improving schools in the state sector (and his colleague Michael Gove is having a good go at it), so that bright kids from poor backgrounds could have a better chance at “A” Levels and university entrance.  We used to have grammar schools, which exactly fulfilled this purpose.  But far from celebrating the fine job that grammar schools did, we saw the leftist levellers and Luddites sweeping grammar schools away, and creating “bog standard” comprehensives in the name of fairness and equality.  But like so much that the left does, the effect was the exact opposite of what was intended.

Is the present system “fair”?  It may not be fair that some children are born smarter than others, but no amount of social engineering will alter the fact.  It’s simply not in our gift to create a totally “fair” world, much as we might like to.  But we should at least be able to prepare our children to make the best of the world as it is, and to do the best they can do.  That’s your responsibility, David, and it seems to me that you’re failing to deliver.

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7 Responses to David Willetts: You’re in a hole. Stop digging!

  1. Rich Tee says:

    This seems like the inevitably twisted result of “anti-discrimination” measures: eventually, everybody in society becomes a member of a group that is discriminated against. It is very telling that the only group now that is considered not discriminated against is the white middle class. This gives credence to the claim I see often online that the goal of socialism is to destroy the middle class, although it may be that the middle class is just an easy target, the ones least likely to complain.

    I’ve just been thinking about your grammar school the other day. I went to Applemore which is a comprehensive on the west side of Southampton Water that was founded in 1969. Apparently Ofsted reports have found the school to be inadequate in some years. That doesn’t surprise me. I didn’t do very well there. My mother, who was grammar school educated, was opposed to grammar schools and took my underachivement out on me personally. She cannot see to this day that a comprehensive is not as good as a grammar.

    I distinctly remember feeling cheated there, that there was something missing, and I wish I had gone to a grammar school. Preferably King Edward’s!

  2. Edward Spalton says:


    Leicestershire was, I think, the first county to opt for comprehensive schools in the mid Fifties. I was at Ashby de la Zouch Boys’ Grammar School . There was an article in the local paper which gave away the real thinking behind the new system. The Labour leader of the Urban District Council was quoted as follows “Good, working class lads go to grammar school, get good jobs and vote Tory. We’re going to put a stop to that”. It has stuck in my mind ever since.

    Our teachers were utterly horrified and revolted. They provided opportunity not levelling. Whilst they never told us their political opinions, I am sure that many of them were Labour supporters because they saw that party as the one which provided increased opportunities, previously limited to the better off. In that spirit, the school had entered the state system to provide free education under the wartime Butler Act and so was eventually absorbed by the political correctness of the day – in spite of opposition from parents, headmaster and governors.

    Later I was told that the aim of the supposed reform was to ensure that working class pupils “rose with their class not out of it” – whatever that meant – and I can recall Roy Hattersley saying that he wanted a system which would give not just “equality of opportunity” but also “equality of outcome” .! Our family doctor of the Fifties was of the same opinion. He pooh-poohed the idea that outstanding achievement was desirable. He told my father, who was in the grain trade, “What we need is what you would call a nice, level sample”. It is a pernicious philosophy which has blighted countless lives.

  3. neilfutureboy says:

    Another problem for the beneficiaries of “positive discrimination” or as it used to be called, discrimination, is common in America. There people make considerable efforts to be seen by white rather than black doctors because they think the black doctors, having qualified because of being on a minority list, are unlikely to be any good. Michelle Obama is on record as complaining that she was treated as if she had only got her job as a minority entitlement (though in her case that was clearly the case).

    Another problem is the way the well connected can wangle their way onto a minoeity list. Particularly egregious are rich Americans who have, or claim to have, a red indian ancestor & thus become minorities.

  4. Jane Davies says:

    I know I was discriminated against at aged 11. Only those deemed worthy of a pass were put forward to take the 11 plus exam (I’m talking about the late fifties) my teacher was confident I would pass having seen my paper. So I looked forward to going to the local grammar school with my friends. I was shocked to discover I had failed, my “posh” friends all passed but those of us with a not so posh background failed. Years later I found out about this “natural” selection and so because my father had a “wrong” occupation I was denied the opportunity to fulfill my potential. Am I angry? You bet.

    • Rich Tee says:

      My Dad’s parents were a taxi driver and a factory worker. He went to a grammar school then on to Oxford where he did German. Then he did another degree in physics in his spare time.

      He always said that he was sure that one of his classmates was the TV scientist David Bellamy, although he was never quite sure, but Bellamy’s biography indicates that this is probably true.

      • Jane Davies says:

        He was one of the lucky ones then and goes to prove that a bright child is a bright child regardless of the parents occupation.
        I think what also came into the decision was how many spaces the local grammar school needed to fill. Priority given to those with a background that was deemed “more affluent”.

      • MartinW says:

        Ah, David Bellamy. Banned by the BBC because of his views on so-called global warming (climate change, climate disruption, climate wierdness, or whatever appellation the climate deceivers can think up).

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