Thursday, May 17, 2007

These Grammar School Boys...

This Grammar School Boy From A Council Estate Who Despaired Of State Education And Sent His Own Kids To Fee Paying Schools will take no lessons in social mobility from that Grammar School Boy From A Nice Semi In A Leafy Suburb Of Birmingham Who Despaired Of State Education And Sent His Own Kids To Fee Paying Schools. So naturally he shares the outrage expressed over at Conservative Home and many other places at David Willetts' totemic and headline grabbing abandonment of grammar schools.

Except... well, when you actually read the Willetts' speech, the details ain't quite so clearcut as the headlines suggest.

True, he says "We must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids. This is a widespread belief but we just have to recognise that there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it."

And true, he sort of says the Tories will not introduce new grammar schools (although he never quite puts it as bluntly as that).

But against that, he proposes a massive freeing up of the supply side to make it much easier for charitable trusts and even groups of parents to start new schools, thus providing much more choice. He wants Blair's academies on steroids.

And even more interestingly, he talks warmly of vouchers:

"If a parent’s request for their child to get to the school of their choice is written on the back of a cheque to pay for it then the letter is going to get far more attention. This is a powerful and important argument."

Now I don't know about you, but I'd previously understood that Friedmanite vouchers had been ruled a total no-go zone for Dave's Conservatives. And if that's now changed, the world is transformed. Everything changes. In fact I could even start to get excited about Mr W as Education Secretary.

Because once you combine new schools, greater parental choice, and vouchers (probably weighted up for disadvantaged kids), then suddenly you're talking a whole new ballgame. One where choice and competition drive improvement, just like they already do in the vastly superior independent sector. And one where- as he notes- other countries like Sweden and the US are already playing.

But what happens when a good school gets oversubscribed? As Willetts reminds us, under the present administered rationing system, that's a massive problem, so wonderfully expressed by expert educationalist John Prescott's ‘if you set up a school and it becomes a good school, the great danger is that everyone wants to go there.’

Currently, as we know, places are rationed by a vast panoply of tortuous and arbitrary administrative devices (or randomly like Brighton's notorious lottery). Willetts rightly condemns all that, saying "you can’t micro-manage the admissions policies of 20,000 schools". But he keeps pretty quiet on what he'd do instead.

I hope he understands the reality. Which is that a voucher based system will only deliver the improvement he envisages if good and popular schools are allowed not only to expand, but also to control their own admissions. It is absolutely vital that they remain in control of managing their own business, a crucial part of which is matching the kids to the school. Bog standard is out.

Which means that, while the name written on the back of a cheque will always command attention, just as at many of the very top independent schools, the cheque alone is not enough. Indeed, the essence of a voucher sytem is that it promotes the kind of competitive diversity already available in the independent sector. And part of that has to be that schools have a right to select on academic ability.

So such a policy is not politically painless. But then neither is any real world system, and this is the only one that holds out the promise of meaningful improvement. Because under a voucher system, as well as good academic schools catering for academic kids, you get good "non-academic" schools equipping less academic kids with the skills they will actually need to make the most of their lives. Just as in the independent sector, the cheques from the parents of less academic kids will drive improvement far beyond anything even dreamed of in most of those old underfunded demoralised Sec Mods*.

Despite all those shock "decontamination" headlines, it's just possible Conservative education policy might be moving in the Right Direction.

*Footnote- off to the LSE library today in an attempt to ferret out some actual facts on the historic funding of Secondary Moderns (see this blog).

1 comment:

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