Back in the 1970s, my parents considered voting Tory, at least briefly. I’m not sure whether they did or not, of course, because, as good democrats, they didn’t say how they voted. But I remember vividly my mother saying “perhaps I’ll have to vote Conservative â€” to save our schools”. Many years later, as a very new parliamentary candidate, I attended an NUT meeting to put forward the Liberal-Democrat view (abolition of tuition fees, that sort of thing). By this time NUT power had faded greatly, and most union-joining teachers were members of the NASUWT. But I didn’t know this. I was treated to a spectacle of hard-left politics, which had seemingly arrived out of a time-warp. An aging teacher â€” though still dressed for mid to late twenties â€” explained how British education was briefly on the right track during the early 1970s when teachers went on strike and occupied a school somewhere, but for the rest was a complete failure. People who were around at the time â€” I must have been five or six â€” doubtless remember this, but I wasn’t able to find any record through an admittedly cursory search of Google and Wikipedia.
In any case, the one policy which can be said to be consistent with the Conservatives right the way through from the 1970s was on education, and the preservation of grammar schools. Conservatives have been pro-Europe and anti-Europe, pro and anti monetarist, pro-war in Iraq and anti (although only after it became unpopular), etc etc. That is, until last week, when in a scene of great bathos, David Cameron unceremoniously turned his back on grammar schools and decided to back New Labour’s Academies.
One would have imagined that, after ten years in the wilderness, and with a pleasing, if not dramatic, improvement in their local election fortunes, the Tories would now be dusting off old policies, giving them a bit of a polish and putting them at the front of the cabinet, muttering quietly but smugly to visitors “history has proved us right, you know”. Of course, history has done nothing of the kind, but it’s quite understandable that a party which is for the first time in years beginning to believe it may one day again be choosing the wallpaper in Downing Street should make such a claim, at least when the press aren’t listening.
Instead, the Academies which, if memory serves me correctly, they were vilifying only a few days before, are now the saviours of British education.
I am a product of both private sector and public sector education, and, most particularly, a child of King Edward’s School in Birmingham, which was a grammar school that decided to go fee paying (although, thankfully, both myself and my sister were only required to pay extremely reduced fees) in order to keep its grammar school tradition. At the same time, it was able to support other grammar schools in the King Edward’s foundation which remained in the public sector. I am grateful for the education I received, and even more so for the off-the-curriculum learning which the school fostered.
As it happens, David Willetts, the Tory education spokesman who has been spearheading the new policy U-turn, was a product of the same school.
Perhaps he has forgotten this.
There are downsides and upsides to grammar schools, and nobody should pretend they, or the system of which they were once part, was anything like perfect. But, then, what is? Aside from the NUT-lady who believed that British education reached its short lived Nirvana during a 1970s strike, it would be hard to find anyone who could point to any time where everyone really did get an education which was completely right for their needs and abilities.
Grammar schools as a concept may well be flawed. But so are New Labour Academies â€” and in much more obvious ways.
The old Tory stance was a principled one based on a consistent view of how society should function. I largely disagree with that view, but I respected it as a genuine side in the debate. Labour was putting forward the comprehensive system, the Tories were putting forwards grammar, Liberal Democrats were putting forwards local decision-making on the issue. It was perhaps consistent of New Labour, in its constant quest for newness, to abandon its old view and come up with something different, something untried in Britain, but with a track record in the USA. It is completely inconsisten for the Tories to do this. They have abandoned their corner of the debate, and not as a result of a change of heart across the party â€” since many backbenchers are opposing it â€” but in yet another opportunistic move to make them as identical as possible with New Labour, to position themselves as the alternative product on the supermarket shelves for when the other product is withdrawn.
Rightly or wrongly, the Tories used to offer a genuine alternative in British education. They now offer no alternative whatsoever.