I think it was in 1976 or thereabouts that I wrote a cheque for £1 to support the national campaign in the battle to save Tameside Grammar. It was my token gesture of support as a student in straightened circumstances – although £1 was worth a lot more then. It was right to stop good schools being interfered with, and it still is.
I do not carry any ideological baggage about grammars. I voted against the 1998 legislation that prohibits the opening of new grammars, and I would vote to repeal it: no school should be ruled out on principle. Equally, I am no enthusiast for any widespread return to selective schools.
I was surprised, and delighted, by the scale of the Prime Minister’s ambition to improve education, and by the way that she explicitly linked this great endeavour to Brexit. I will need some persuading however, on the detail of the plans. The key objective that both the PM and the Secretary of State have set out, is to get many more good schools. I agree with that.
Many selective schools are very good schools, but I am not convinced that selection is a significant factor in making any school a good one. I have visited some fantastic comprehensives in ‘deprived’ and unpromising areas. I believe that the key difference is made by the quality of teachers and, even more importantly, their leadership.
How do we get more good teachers and excellent heads?
Returning to selection won’t fix it. Rather, we need to raise the whole status of the teaching profession -which will come at a cost. (The recently introduced requirement that new teachers have at least a 2.1 honours degree, was well intended, but I fear that in practice it is unhelpful: inspirational teachers don’t necessarily have the best degrees, and we should remember that Einstein got a third).
Selection and choice can be opposites: you cannot choose a school that will not admit you. A school’s ability to select pupils, is equally its ability to reject them. Each of the 4 market towns in my parliamentary division supports one secondary school. Imagine that Burgate School acquires the ability not to select a proportion of pupils from Fordingbridge. I don’t relish the prospect of informing parents that they will have to have their children bussed elsewhere. So, one component in the debate that will now follow, will be about the quality of provision that will be made for pupils that are not selected. We have be told that there will be no return of secondary moderns, but this will be a ‘hard sell’.
A journalist asked me if, with an effective working majority of only 15, how difficult will it be to get these measures through the Commons. As a whip in both opposition and in government, I have witnessed the House become much more independent over recent years, irrespective of a government’s majority. I think we have reached a position where, if ministers want to get their measures on the statute book, they have to win the argument. I’m all ears.
I think the government accepts that it has to persuade, otherwise the PM would not have sent out such a clear message by promoting some serial ‘rebels’ to ministerial and cabinet rank in July.