Category Archives: Michael Gove

Weighing in on the grammar school debate

I thought I’d weigh in with a few thoughts on the ongoing (and frankly rather dull) grammar school debate that has attracted quite a lot of attention in recent days. It is an argument which is often dragged to the foreground, despite a far greater problem within education looming behind it. If we are to talk about this issue sensibly, I feel a sense of perspective must be established and the possibility of real educational reform proposed.

We are told ceaselessly by the leftist egalitarians that to select by academic merit is wrong. They will often claim that comprehensives are the ideal barricade to private school dominance, despite their obvious failures, that existing grammar schools (a pathetic crop of besieged, unrepresentative institutions) are stuffed full of middle class kids and that by attending grammar schools, many children will subsequently lose out on the opportunity to mix with a vast cross-section of society.

Some of these arguments are better than others. Writing as a former grammar student (I went to a bilateral school in south east London; half academy and half grammar), I am not convinced that grammar streams overproduce a certain type of student, ethnically or socio-economically. Britain is a diverse country, and grammar schools are themselves becoming increasingly socially mixed. I understand the many concerns that people have over the reinstatement of new grammar schools, but grammar education was able to pull me, a poorer, working class student, up the ladder and provide me with the necessary tools to progress.

But here lies the interesting question. Why are so many of us worrying about the possible reintroduction of a few more state grammar schools whilst, at the same time, not paying any attention whatsoever to the extensive selection that already exists throughout our society? Children (from the very beginning of their schooling, but particularly around the age of 11) are streamed according to their postcode, religious upbringing and parental income up and down the country, but do we ever hear fuss from the grammar school abolitionists? No. They are silent about it and do not ever attempt to discuss it.

Paul Mason, one of Britain’s more respectable Left-wing commentators, wrote a very intelligent piece in ‘The Guardian’ on Monday, which can be read here:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/08/grammar-schools-arent-fit-for-the-world-of-the-future

…in which he argues that ‘their [grammar schools] aim is to reimpose a social divide entirely at odds with technological change’, the kind of change that is taking the jobs market by storm. He writes that ‘the divide in the 21st-century economy will be between tasks you need a human for and those you don’t’, and that ‘what we need, instead of selection, is to set education free’.

His final sentence hits the nail on the head. Freedom is exactly what Britain’s education system needs, though I expect Mr Mason and I have very different takes on just how to bring freedom about. A national grammar system, rather than a fragmented system furnished with as little as 163 academically-selective schools, could well be a step up from the current structure, but a system I’d like to see implemented would be infinitely more efficient.

A full blown voucher system.

Also advocated by the libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, a full blown voucher system would be similar to (though, crucially, not the same as) voucher-based, privatised systems already underway in countries such as Chile, Sweden and Hong Kong. Voucher systems are usually introduced to promote school choice, rigorous competition and involve the subsidising of the consumer, rather than (as is currently the case) the producer.

In Sweden, where around 12% of students are recipients of school vouchers, the scheme has produced generally positive results. In an article for ‘Forbes’, Adam Ozimek wrote that

“another important factor is that for each student that attends an independent school, the school received an amount equal to a large majority of the average per-pupil cost of the students public school system, and this is paid by the student’s municipality. This means that the resources available to the local public school are decreased as more students choose independent schools. This increases the competitive pressure, which the results suggest is an important determinant of improving outcomes”.

The suggestion that schools can compete in their current format in Britain is pure fantasy. During his run as Education Secretary, Michael Gove dabbled with the introduction of school vouchers, but it remains to be said that only a tiny proportion of students have actually had any meaningful access to them. Within education, the taxpayer can either subsidise the producer (schools), or he can subsidise the consumer (parents with children). At the moment, we subsidise the producer, which has lead to mass bureaucratisation, a lot of money wasted and a generally sub-standard system of education. In short, if the government is to hold its monopoly on the creation, resourcing and funding of schools, then we cannot realistically expect schools to compete, as funds provided are pegged with the school’s size, location and need.

In this context, then, there is a strong argument for the return of a national grammar school system (as was the case pre-1965, when more than 1,300 grammar schools existed in Britain, compared with just 163 today and laws preventing more from being established). If we maintain that governmental administration of schools is the best way forward, bearing in mind the three, rampant selection processes that I outlined earlier in this blog, then we must allow for bright young children, many of whom will come from poorer backgrounds, to slide into better-performing selective schools, just as we did for those politicians (Harold Wilson comes to mind) who decided to pull up the ladder behind them in the mid 1960s.

Our current Prime Minister herself benefitted from a selective, grammar school education. I hope that her posturing over the re-introduction in many parts of the country of selection-by-academic merit isn’t merely an attempt at appearing conservative. My educational utopia doesn’t look set to be introduced any time soon, and as private school dominance continues to usurp the rest of society, Britain desperately needs to re-think its strategy on education. Ideally, handing over all schools to the free market and introducing tuition fee-pegged vouchers to parents who cannot afford private schooling for their children would make for the freest, most competitive structure, but if taxpayers’ money is not rerouted, and we continue with the state-funding of schools, then I hope Mrs May acts on her conservative instincts and decides to bring back those 1,000 grammar schools, lost in the winds of egalitarian dogma.

 

 


Let’s talk about Britain’s constitutional crisis

For the time being, I’m uncertain as to who I shall support for leadership of the Conservative party. As a newcomer, I may find myself unable to vote in any upcoming contest, but I shall be following events and campaigning avidly nonetheless. I plan on spending a few weeks assessing candidates and will make my decision shortly afterwards. I’m extremely pleased, though, at the range and quality of Prime Ministerial candidates to date, and I suspect that watching the race unfold could well be as fascinating as it will be close.

We know now that Boris Johnson will play no part. Like most, I was shocked to see his official withdrawal earlier this morning, but as I spent time thinking about it over a full English breakfast, I realised that it made more sense than many will realise. I think for Boris to have become Tory leader in the current climate would have been a huge mistake. It would have had a hugely devaluing effect on the EU referendum; painting the entire campaign as a proxy for a Boris coup and a new Tory leader. By standing and (inevitably) winning, his legacy may have been permanently tarnished. It would have looked too opportunistic, too easy and too personal.

We also know that, contrary to previous repeated claims that he would not run for leader, Michael Gove has also decided to throw his name into the hat. For those interested, I would recommend you give his interview with Laura Kuenssberg a watch after reading (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-36677028). As I write, I feel no pressure in saying that I am a huge fan of Michael Gove, and could well decide to back him for leader. Both he and Andrea Leadsom impressed me hugely during the course of the referendum, and I am also glad that Liam Fox has expressed interest too. This could well be the most talent-filled and tightest leadership contest in some time.

Though it has been suggested more than once, I do not believe it would be right for the next leader to call a general election. A Conservative government was elected in 2015 for a five-year term, and it would seem counter-productive to put what remains of the country’s constitutional stability at risk. Another general election in the autumn would merely add to the unease and uncertainty that many of us are feeling. I do not say this as somebody who has recently become a member of the Tory party, I say this as someone eager to see Britain exit the European Union as quickly as possible.

Britain’s constitutional crisis does not end here, though. The Labour party continues to fight and wriggle its way out of a deep, ideological conflict. The combatants consist of Jeremy Corbyn, a ring of trade unions and an overwhelming mandate from traditional Labour voters pitted against a circus of hostile, Blairite MPs. It’s a war that has been brewing for quite some time. The election of Jeremy Corbyn back in September hinted at something that Britain’s referendum definitively exposed: that there is a huge disconnect between the beliefs and concerns of the Labour party membership and those squatting in Westminster village.

So while the Labour party attempts to put out a raging fire, another party in our system is presented with a golden opportunity. Tim Farron’s fierce critique of Britain’s referendum result last week, as well as his impassioned pledge to keep Britain in the European Union if elected, could see support for the Liberal Democrats soar. The referendum result was certainly close, and so naturally, support for re-entry would be very strong. Other than the Lib Dems, no major party has taken such a stubbornly pro-EU stance since defeat. The SNP have sung their usual babbling choruses about Scotland being dragged out of the union by England against their will, but this whinging must not be taken seriously.

It is worth noting that the future success of the Lib Dems is currently very much contingent upon how effectively Labour re-unite. As things stand, reunification doesn’t appear likely any time soon, but the situation could be win-win for Farron’s party. If Jeremy Corbyn hangs onto power, backed by his membership and the trade unions, and fights back against rebellious members of parliament, the Labour party will continue to appear sharply divided. This could well mean that swing voters, or more Blairite party supporters, look elsewhere for their political fix. Labour voters who do desert the party are likely to be seeking a centre ground; ground which the Liberal Democrats proudly occupy. If, on the other hand, Mr Corbyn is banished from the party (a prospect which is looking dangerously likely), or is pressured into resigning, the overwhelming number of party members who supported him are likely to be angered and feel further disillusioned.

It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that many will jump ship through sheer protest, or cut ties with the party permanently – again, a result likely to benefit the Lib Dems more so than any other party. The Liberal Democrats currently hold eight seats in the House of Commons, and though it may seem implausible to suggest that they retrieve many of those seats that they lost at the last general election, stranger things have happened in politics. My own view is that Labour turmoil could potentially result in the Liberal Democrats becoming a major part of the opposition to the next elected government. Perhaps I am wrong, but after the week we’ve had, I think it unwise to rule anything out just yet.

If Britain’s domestic integrity has been crushed in the last week, its international standing wasn’t aided too well by a speech made in the European parliament yesterday by a certain Nigel Farage. Yes, he has much to be happy about, but his performance was pathetic. His parliamentary colleagues in Brussels haven’t taken too much of a shining to him over the last 17 years, but that was no excuse for the diplomatic petulance he displayed in his first appearance in the chamber since the UK voted to leave the European Union last week.

This is a time for unity, not division; a time for peace, not conflict, and a time for maintaining strong bridges built over decades with European partners. Mr Farage did the country (that he claims to love) no favours when he decided to resort to petty insults early yesterday morning, and a moment of reflection on his part I’m sure wouldn’t go a miss. Those engaged will have taken particular note at the reaction of the parliament when Farage boasted that a tariff-free trade agreement between both parties would be mutually beneficial and something to be negotiated as quickly as possible. I therefore suggest that calls for Nigel Farage to play a part in the exit negotiations be swept under the carpet. The next few months and years look set to be turbulent, and as such, Britain needs its politicians to show leadership and great diplomatic skill now more than over.

But at least British politics is interesting again. That much is certain.