David Cameron used his brief time as Shadow Education Secretary to change Tory policy on tuition fees (although the Welsh Tories have chosen to keep the old 'no fees' policy). In a speech today, as leader, he is outlining the broader changes he wants to see to Conservative education priorities.
His big picture is an emphasis on improving education in all schools rather than creating more diversity and exit options. He recently said “I want to improve services for everyone, not just provide an escape route for the privileged few”. In this way his approach echoes that already announced on health. He is concerned that voters and parents come to believe that Conservatives are interested in the education of everyone and not just the few.
Advocates of school choice say that this criticism misses the point. The very option of choice can raise school standards - it doesn't have to be exercised. When school authorities know that parents are no longer their 'captives' they are compelled to raise their game and the existence of the option raises standards for everyone.
Interviewed on the Today programme David Willetts, the new Shadow
Education Secretary, said that he was still a believer in parental
choice as one of the best ways of driving up standards in schools.
However, the pupil's passport policy that Tories had at the last
election might not be the mechanism that would best deliver school choice, he said.
He praised the Tabernacle School of North Kensington which, run by an evangelical church, provides a high quality education to children outside of the state system and for lower income parents. Tories still wanted to encourage that kind of diversity, he insisted.
A "setting by subject system" appears to be a top priority for David Cameron:
"Every parent knows that children do best when they are engaged at the right level of ability. So I want to see setting in every single school... Parents know it works. Teachers know it works. Tony Blair promised it in 1997. But it still hasn't happened. We will keep up the pressure until it does."
On selection Mr Willetts said that “it would be simple and straightforward to say if any school has a chosen specialism they should be able to select 10 per cent of their pupils by an aptitude in that.” Mr Cameron will use his speech today to reject suggestions from Tony Blair that the Tories want to restore the 11+:
"We can all see what the Prime Minister is up to. In trouble over his education reforms, he is trying to play politics with education by harking back to class war. So I had better make it totally clear. Under my leadership there'll be no going back to the 11-plus, no going back to grammar schools. I want no child held back, so my priority is not selection by ability between schools, but setting by ability within schools, because every parent knows that a high quality education means engaging children at the right level."
Sir Bob Balchin, a senior education adviser to the last Conservative Government, uses an article in The Times to say that Tory education policy should drop the idea of vouchers/ passports and concentrate on...
- Reducing the "pitiless bureaucratic flow of paperwork" that overwhelms teachers;
- Abandoning Labour's "inclusion policy" in which "too many children with special needs find themselves distressed in mainstream schools rather than supported in special schools";
- Excluding disruptive children who ruin other pupils' chances and are forcing teachers out of the profession;
- Eliminating 'grade inflation';
- Ending the "jumble of vocational courses" where "few employers and even fewer school leavers can even begin to understand them or their worth."