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John Moss: Missing the point in the grammar schools debate

John Moss is a regeneration property developer and Conservative activist from Walthamstow.

The Grammar Schools slanging match shows how politicians and commentators on the right have missed the point – both about what Margaret Thatcher really did and what people really want. The debate shouldn’t be about whether selection is good or bad, it should be about whether it is any business of the Government to make that choice in the first place.

David Willetts did not change Conservative policy in his speech to the CBI. Yet his comments have unleashed a predictable, yet frustrating flood of comment and counter-comment.

Simon Heffer said "Grammar Schools are the best way ever invented of helping people to get on". David Willetts suggests that because very few children at Grammars are demonstrably from impoverished backgrounds, they aren’t doing that anymore. Boris Johnson points out that 50% of parents in Islington buy extra tuition for their children and Andrew Pierce in the Telegraph reminds us that parents whose kids were entitled to free school meals at his Swindon comprehensive, nevertheless scrimped and saved to pay anyway, to avoid the stigma.

All this suggests two things to me. The first is that the Conservative leadership and those advising them have possibly missed one of the most important things about what Blair has done to politics – though he is only following the lead Margaret Thatcher set.

Blair and the New Labour cheerleaders only ever talk about outcomes. They don’t talk about how things will happen – sometimes it is clear they don’t even think about how things might happen either – rather, they talk about what they want and what people want. That they have failed to deliver is rapidly becoming apparent and people have rumbled this, hence their dissatisfaction. However, the Opposition still has the luxury of being able to talk about outcomes rather than the process of delivering them, but we forgot to do this last week.

Margaret Thatcher was no different – in her early years – the methods weren’t clear and defined, but the stated outcomes were and they were in tune with the people’s own instinct to have more control over their lives.

The second thing suggested to me about all this is that there are still far too many people who don’t fully understand what Thatcher actually achieved. There are lots of things they can point to, like privatisation and the changes in union legislation, but they miss the underlying point that the policies actually achieved a fundamental shift in the way people thought and acted.

The major changes in the 1979-1987 period forced people to accept that they were responsible for the choices they made and the decisions they took. There wasn’t going to be a big government there to buy out a filing company crippled by strikes, there wasn’t going to be a fat subsidy to keep un-economic nationalised businesses in clover. In the economic sphere at least, Thatcher practiced, trusting people and sharing responsibility. Not everybody wanted to be trusted and to take that responsibility, but enough did and they drove things forward to the benefit of everybody.

A very small start was made to extend this idea to health and education with GP Fundholding and Grant Maintained schools, but it was too little, too late and the undoubted benefits, (why else have Labour brought both back in after initially scrapping them), were insufficient to save the Conservatives from defeat in 1997.

Under Labour, we have seen a retrenchment of old instincts. The levers of power are once again wielded in Whitehall, they still don’t work very well and we all pay the cost. Where they have gone back to versions of Conservative structures like City Academies and Primary Care Trusts, they have been hemmed in with targets and outside interference. It is unlikely this will change under Gordon Brown and it seems strange that we would not seek to differentiate ourselves from his likely stance.

The mistake Cameron’s Conservatives may be in danger of making, is to accept the position as they may find it on winning an election and seek simply to manage that position better. Just as we did when we bought into Atlee’s nationalisations and the big government of the Welfare State, after we regained power in the early fifties. I can’t see today’s liberated consumers accepting that kind of "under new management" approach.

My conclusion is that if we truly do believe in trusting people and sharing responsibility, that means that it should be no business of Government to tell schools how they should choose their pupils, or for that matter what they should teach, which exams they should sit, or who should or should not be allowed to set up and run a school.

The government should make sure that every child has access to education and leave it to parents to decide which school they take their child to on the basis of what they think is right. It should do this by trusting parents with the money to buy the education they think is right for their child. That way we don’t have to talk about "how", because we won’t be in control of "how" anymore.

The result will almost certainly be more schools who choose by academic achievement, but there will also be those who choose by geographic catchment, some who choose by faith, others still who choose by ability in a special subject, music, dance etc. Committed adherents to mixed-ability teaching can set up their own schools and wait for their customers to pitch up.

The Conservative Party response to anybody who asks how we think schools should choose pupils, what they teach or how they teach it should be, "not bothered".

The Swedish voucher scheme, on which Conservative policy at the last election was modelled, has been a success and is overwhelmingly supported by all the main political parties, parents and the trade unions. It has seen the number of schools increase, the size of schools fall and the performance of almost all schools rise. If we want to make sure that every parent has the chance to send their child to a good, local school, having more schools to choose from would be a start. It takes five years to open a new school in the UK. In Sweden, you can open one in three months.

Of course, I myself have just made the mistake of talking about "how" rather than the outcomes, but I needed to do that to illustrate this point.

Blair, Mandelson et al, changed the political frame of reference. Politicians used to stand up and say, "This is what I believe. If you agree with me, vote for me". New Labour turned that into, "This is what you believe and we agree with you, so you can trust us". People were let down and now they have lost all trust in politicians of whatever stripe.

Policies which genuinely empower people and genuinely give them more responsibility and control over their lives, create a sense in people that they are being trusted, rather than being asked to place their trust in others. I think that is what the Conservatives achieved 20 years ago. They offered support to people who wanted to get on and trusted them to do so. That released a huge amount of energy, innovation and investment and our economy is still thriving on the back of that today. Imagine what could be achieved if we were able to recreate half of that in education and health through funding parents and patients, rather than schools and hospitals?


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