Friday, June 27, 2008

Labour can and must fight back

Losing our deposit in Henley is hardly a disaster but coming fifth behind the BNP is! Rather than wallow in a sea of self pity and recrimination we need to fight back. 'If' we are going to lose the next election (I emphasise the word if) then let us at least do so with our principles and integrity in tact. Labour was once feared as an electoral machine that was ruthless in exposing its opponents' weaknesses and in offering the public a clear alternative to failed Tory ideas and policies.

Can I suggest one way in which we might launch a potential rear guard action and once again expose the Tories for the shallow and elitist bunch that they are. I have long been a campaigner for the abolition of academic selection at age 11 and have written about this issue in Tribune, the Times Educational Supplement and for the Fabian Review. The piece I have written below also appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website (it is also on Labourhome) and explains why it is I believe that grammar schools could replace Europe as the Tory party's Achilles' heel.

I really would be interested in your views.

If Europe has long been the Tory party’s Achilles’ heel then grammar schools are fast becoming its pain in the neck. It is now some twelve months since David Cameron experienced his first - and so far his biggest – self-inflicted wound when he ‘wobbled’ over his and his party’s continued support for academic selection. Last June David Cameron called the defenders of grammar schools 'deluded' and said that any debate about selection was 'sterile'. Well he would say that wouldn't he. One year later Cameron and shadow Schools’ Secretary Michael Gove - though, I doubt, the party at large - is still apparently convinced that there should be no more grammar schools and no more selection by ability at age 11. What is puzzling therefore is why Mr Cameron does not take the next logical step in this argument and call for all existing selection to end. Let me suggest why he is so reluctant to move in this direction: it is because the majority of the remaining 164 grammar schools in England are in Tory-held constituencies. Cameron is not opposed to selection out of conviction; rather he is in favour of keeping all existing selective schools out of cold, political calculation. So could the continuation of the 11+ become a major issue at the next general election?

One man who seems to think so is the combative and privately educated Secretary of State for Children, Families and Schools, Ed Balls. In a speech last week to the annual conference of the National College of School Leaders Ed Balls made clear his own personal position on grammar schools. "Let me make clear that I do not like selection," Mr Balls said. He went on to explain how some secondary modern schools are achieving good results despite the fact that they are surrounded by grammar schools makes it more difficult. "I've heard first-hand how some of the young people starting in these schools feel on day one that they have already failed" Balls told the audience of headteachers. Balls will publish his ‘secondary modern strategy’ next month and it is rumoured that each secondary modern will receive up to £1 million in additional funding.

Grammar schools and the whole issue of academic selection is a totemic issue for many backbench Labour MPs and I have no doubt that Ball’s comments and announcement about extra funding will have gone down well with many grass roots members and supporters. There is no doubt that Balls and the Labour party in general are both keen to make selection an issue before the next election and that they believe a debate about the future of grammar schools will help in providing some clear dividing lines between the Labour and Tory front benches.

Cameron often uses the term ‘progressive’ when talking about the modern Tory party but he knows that selection at age 11 is seen by many people to be an archaic and socially exclusive policy, he also knows that opening up a debate about this issue would produce a packet full of trouble for him personally. Tory party members and supporters of a particular age see grammar schools as offering escape routes from poverty for bright working class kids – they disagree with their Eton educated leader and want to see more grammar schools under a future Tory government, not fewer.

So if not quite the Achilles’ heel that is Europe, grammar schools could still end up being a real pain in the backside for the Tories. As yet the Tory party has failed to outline a vision for schooling that will help meet the rising aspirations of the British people. Do the Tories favour an inclusive, comprehensive system that intrinsically values and caters for all pupils regardless of their economic or social capital? Or are they still in favour of a two-tier, elitist system that helps perpetuate privilege and inequality? The answer to this question matters and Ed Balls and David Cameron understand this better than most.


Praguetory said...

I am sure you and many others are full of ideas to help Labour turn the corner, but I'm surprised quite how many times you mention the Tories (it was 12) whilst setting out these positive ideas. People could be forgiven that rather than seeking to serve the country all you care about is holding on to power.

Letters From A Tory said...

"Losing our deposit in Henley is hardly a disaster"

Errr, when was the last time that Labour lost their deposit because the voters had so spectacularly abandoned them? I wonder....