Thursday, May 17, 2007

Open Letter to David Cameron

I was going to blog about boardgames, but I think that this is rather more important.

Dave - I hope you don't mind my calling you Dave, it seems like everyone else does), I simply must take issue with your latest policy change.

Had I been a party member, I would be cancelling my membership (it seems like every time that I have got close to signing up over the last 20 years, the Conservative Party has gone ahead and doone something stupid to push me away again). Had you announced this policy change a fortnight ago, you wouldn't have received my vote in the local elections.

Of what do I speak? Your new stance on selective education and grammar schools in particular.

I think that I would be categorised as "middle class"; University-educated, professional career et cetera. And a product of the grammar school system (at a time when it was under fierce attack from Labour-run local councils). Although my parents can never agree as to which "class" they belong to, one of my grandfathers was a postman, the other a milkman; as the first member of the family to go to University, the first to obtain a degree, the first to achieve a professional position, I might be considered an example of social mobility at work.

Now perhaps that might have been achieved if I had not gone to a state-funded grammar school. But going to such a school guaranteed that it was probable, and not merely possible.

One of the striking features of the school that I attended was that it is exactly the sort of institution that permits - nay, encourages - eductional opportunities for all. It is non-fee paying. It is located in the inner city of a large metropolitan area. It has a very wide cross-section of pupils from all different backgrounds. To illustrate the last point, I was considered "posh" at school because my family owned their own home in the right part of the city.

Yet you want to throw this away, in favour of promoting a model of education that isn't working despite it's place at the heart of the Labour Government's education policy.

You're crackers.

If there is a problem that too many of the "middle classes" are able to shoehorn their offspring into selective grammar schools, then it is a problem that can and should be tackled by promoting the aspirations of the less well-off; it should be done by providing them with the positive assistance that you fear the middle classes can buy for their children, by providing the extra tuition and extra-currular activities (that you fear weigh so heavily in favour of the worng sort of people getting into the schools) at inner city junior schools, by targetting funding and assistance at the level where it is most likely to promote a commitment to educational achievement and success. You don't solve the perceived problem by doing away with the schools themselves.

I presume, by the way, that when you point to perceived problems in the schools' intake, you are excluding all the fee-paying grammar schools. Because although the Conservative Party has had some very able leaders to have come from modest backgrounds, helped along by the grammar school system, I understand that your own educational experiences were somewhat different. You are, are you not, a product of a school system that is completely closed to the less well-off, that has for decades (if not centuries) been seen as positively reinforcing barriers to social mobility.

In fact, by not encouraging state-run grammar schools you are destined to pile injustice on top of injustice in the educational system. Parents with the means - and the drive - to influence their offspring's choice of secondary school can easily side-step the failing inner city schools by moving house - something that the housing market has reflected for many years. You don't "fix" that by denying the less well-off entry into the best schools, schools where it is ability and not wealth or catchment area which determines who can attend and who cannot.

Instead, tackle WHY some families don't put their children forward for such places; look at providing the means for the child to achieve DESPITE parental antipathy. Because for the United Kingdom to succeed in this century it will need to get the very best from its citizens, promoting ability and hard work. The grammar school system has always done that.

As it is, you may be right to identify a problem (though it is not one I recognise from my own experiences); your solution is to throw the baby out with the bath water, when it would be far more efficient to just shake the water up a bit.

If I get a response, I will post it here.

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