Sunday, October 30, 2005

Davis Backs Grammar Schools

David Davis 2, David Cameron 0. That's the running tally of concrete policies that seem to have hit the headlines at the moment, anyway. In the absence of any policy pronouncements, by the way, I think that it is only fair that we judge Cameron by the things that he has written in the past. Until he shows us otherwise, why should we believe he has done a volte-face from that brilliantly-presented document with dreadful content?

If we're marking the strength of the policies that have been put forward, however, it's still obvious that Davis hasn't made the killer blow. His pronouncements on tax will let Blair continue to get away with his incessant repetition of questions at the despatch box that run something along the lines of "How many nurses will you sack to pay for your tax cuts?", thus evading scrutiny of the fact that proportional returns for spending increases simply haven't been obtained. And, as much as I hate Cameron's policy evasiveness, he's probably right to say that it's ridiculous making promises on tax so early in an electoral cycle.

Davis today has hit a stronger note, promising to create more grammar schools if he is elected as Prime Minister. This is undoubtedly a great step forward. Blair's White Paper talks about introducing more choice into schools, but from what I can gather is rather vague about what will actually happen. If, as this Telegraph report suggests, parents will have the power to change the curriculum, then what happens to the National Curriculum? Or is the much-vaunted choice all a charade anyway? Gary Monro points out that the LEAs still will retain power under the new system.

In any case, my faith in Blair's ability to run the education system is non-existent. Just about every single move his government has taken during 8 years in office has been to the detriment of our schools. In 2002 after the A-Level marking fiasco, Mike Tomlinson, Ken Boston and Estelle Morris were all complicit in a cover-up of what was a genuine scandal. Marks and their boundaries were moved arbitrarily, the only problem being that the existing system allowed these arbitrary changes to be made. (That, of course, doesn't excuse the fact that Messrs Boston and Tomlinson claimed within a week of allegations being made that everything was above board, despite not having reviewed a single script.) Curriculum 2000, which introduced AS-Levels, was also an utter debacle. It was also, of course, the typical Labour policy - great in garnering headlines, in giving the appearance of change, yet absolutely useless in making any real change, other than heaping piles of extra work on to teachers and students alike. Whilst attempting to foster the ethos of a good independent school everywhere is a great idea, I haven't seen any evidence that the White Paper will cause anything other than cosmetic change.

Grammar schools, on the other hand, are a serious and concrete solution to the problems that face our school system as it currently stands. The left argue that they want to remove class from the education system. Well, as things are, it's the most class-ridden system imaginable. Those who can afford it send their children to private schools; failing that, you move into the catchment area of the best schools in your neighbourhood (with inflated house prices, naturally); alternatively, if there's a church school in your locale, then you make sure your child gets to the school you want by attending church under false pretences for a few years. A great way of assuring merit is the means of assuring a good education.

Grammar schools, on the other hand, really can select on merit. Now, a dichotomy between grammar schools and secondary moderns isn't desirable, and I don't think that many sensible advocates of reinstituting grammar schools would argue for the system to be brought back entirely as it was (I personally favour a model much more on the lines of the German system, and possibly with selection at 13 rather than 11). And the problem of the system can't be entirely sorted out whilst there are still private schools around for people to "buck the system", as it were (not that this should be taken as a criticism of private schools). What I do know is this, however. Whilst Darlington had its own grammar school, any child, from anywhere in the town or its immediate environs, could get to a top school. Now, if you happen to live in the wrong part of town, you are sent to a failing school, with scant prospects for the future at all. I don't think that's a justifiable system at all.

The problem Davis faces is twofold: one, grammar schools are somewhat difficult to sell in any case (it's difficult to be a 'nice' party whilst advocating dividing students into 'successes' and 'failures' at 11 or 13); two, it seems like a return to a rather unimaginative Tory past, which the media won't like, especially if he defeats their new darling. It will certainly get the backs of the left up, although this isn't a bad thing. Standing on a platform where you are telling parents that their children may be sent to what will automatically be seen as "bad" or "failing" or "reject" schools isn't a ready way for success, however advisable a system that teaches people by ability may actually be. This of course invites the further question of what sort of system could feasibly be introduced - something I hope to return to at a later date.

What Davis has done in the last few days is show how dangerous policy can actually be in a leadership race, especially when your opponent a) refuses to commit to anything, b) has greater momentum, and c) predicates his entire appeal on being nice (tough on ties, tough on the causes of ties). Whilst I'm delighted to see politicians actually trying to stimulate debate on policy, his putting options up there just gives the media more time to shoot them down, especially in the absence of any pronouncements from Cameron.