26 MAY 2007, Page 10

Cameron has a good case: shame he’s got diverted by the grammar schools row

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.

Mr Blair has failed to deliver his promises on education because of a fundamental mistake he made in 1975: the year in which he joined the Labour party. He has delivered bold speeches promising to make all state schools independent. Nice idea, Mr Blair: shame about your party. Labour, denied the commanding heights of the economy and union power, regard LEAs as among the last bastions of socialist egalitarianism. This is why his last education bill, establishing trust schools, was perforated with concessions, and even then needed Tory support to be passed.

In Mr Blair’s system, new schools can only open once they have a found a sponsor willing to part with £2 million in areas that fit ‘deprivation criteria’. Academies usually replace failed schools, thus adding nothing to the number of schools. Negotiations often take two years. And if the organisers want to open a second school, they must start this whole process from the beginning — and run the dispiriting gauntlet of the LEAs yet again Mr Willetts is proposing to correct each of these defects. There would be no sponsorship criteria, new schools could open wherever there is a demand, and multiple school licences would be granted. Mr Cameron said on Monday he would ensure the ‘LEAs cannot strangle new schools at birth’. Mr Willetts envisages a large number of smaller, boutique schools rather than a new Grange Hill with a cast of hundreds in every neighbourhood.

The Conservatives’ arguments against building more grammar schools are, in private, a good deal saner than those they advance in public. Even if Mr Cameron’s government backed grammars, it is pointed out, the LEAs would defy him — just as they have defied Mr Blair. And what would Milton Friedman make of a system where schools choose pupils, rather than the other way around? Choice, Mr Cameron believes, is a more powerful tool for social mobility than academic selection.

Yet the Tory leader prefers instead to emphasise that grammars are a thing of the past — ‘a chain around our necks’ — and the Conservative party should grow up and accept it. He did not expect this storm and has been caught without convincing answers to his party critics. If he wants greater diversity of schools, why not a few more grammars? The answer lies, largely, in his fear of frightening voters. ‘We have to be careful what we say. We must use Blair’s language, to present this as the conclusion of Blair’s ideas,’ one Cameroon adviser told me.

A few months before he died, Eric Forth asked one of his more mischievous questions when the newly elected David Cameron came to address the 1922 Committee. ‘I believe in big business, low taxes and grammar schools,’ he said at the meeting in January last year. ‘Am I still a Conservative?’ The answer to his question lies in the reception area of Harris City Academy in Crystal Palace, the flagship of Mr Blair’s new schools. There is a plaque there that visiting Labour ministers hurriedly walk past, commemorating its opening as a City Technology College by John Major when he was Prime Minister. The freeing up of the education marketplace is a Conservative mission that, if implemented properly, could represent a bigger step forward than expanding grammar schools. But the first task for Mr Cameron is to make this case to his party.