Magazine article The Spectator

Cameron Has a Good Case: Shame He's Got Diverted by the Grammar Schools Row

Magazine article The Spectator

Cameron Has a Good Case: Shame He's Got Diverted by the Grammar Schools Row

Article excerpt

For some time, David Cameron has been looking for an unpopular education policy. To be heard, he believes, one needs to be attacked.

He has already been denounced for his 'hug a hoodie' speech and for promoting the family. The ensuing arguments, he feels, moved the party forward. So how to repeat the trick with education? He only halfjokingly rejected proposals as being 'not unpopular enough'. Well: if it was a fight he was after, he will not have been disappointed.

The past week in Westminster has been not about Gordon Brown or his ideas for the future, but about the Conservatives and their internal battle over grammar schools. David Willetts has had more exposure in the past week than he has in his entire career as shadow education secretary. Mr Cameron has once again slipped into his favourite role, playing St George to the dragon of the wicked Tory Right. And the fight is still raging.

Yet if all this were, as some Cameroons claim, a roaring success, we would, by now, have some idea what precisely the Conservatives do propose on education. We are yet again left in no doubt what Mr Cameron does not like (selective education, the 2005 Tory manifesto, Simon Heffer), but he is still too vague about what he actually supports. And this is a tragedy, because the system Mr Willetts seems to be proposing could become a more potent force for social mobility than a reimposition of grammar schools ever could.

Mr Cameron appears inclined toward a version of the voucher system that transformed Swedish education when it was introduced in 1992. The dynamics are as simple as they are powerful. Any qualified teachers can set up a school, as long as they prove there is a demand and meet minimum standards. The state pays them a fixed amount per pupil: about £5,000 per year. State education would be open to any school, or community, that wanted to participate. And that's it.

It didn't sound like much of a policy when introduced in Sweden. Even the ministers who proposed it expected little uptake. But to their astonishment, they were inundated with school proposals by church groups, Montessori organisations and villages tired of having to bus children miles to the nearest school. New schools now comprise seven per cent of the total: a tipping point. Once existing schools realised they would lose pupils if they did not shape up, the entire system was galvanised.

This fits perfectly within Mr Cameron's philosophical framework. The state pays the fees, but organises nothing. Civil society is invited to step in, run schools and take over in areas where the state fails appallingly. Nor is this an obscure Scandinavian theory. School choice is being used in the Netherlands, Chile, Canada and charter schools in the United States.

Reams of data have now been assembled, proving that the choice works for the taxpayer, and promotes equality and social mobility.

One may wonder why, if school choice is so simple to introduce, Tony Blair has achieved so little. After seven years he has notched up just 48 City Academies out of England's 3,300 secondary schools. The truth is that he has met his match in the local authorities, which dislike opening new schools if there are vacancies to fill in bad ones. Education is their domain, and they fight new entrants to the death (remember their brutal propaganda campaigns against grant-maintained schools under the Tories).

When Lambeth LEA hired a QC to try to kill off a City Academy, it spoke volumes about where power truly lies in English education. …

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