All three comment pieces in the Daily Telegraph today were about the Tory Party and grammar schools. Alice Thomson says it best however, with these words
The Tories seem to have ditched what they always held dear - a belief that those who worked hard and were talented would be rewarded - to embrace the socialist principle that all must have prizes
Boris Johnson, usually the Conservative Party's voice of sanity, for all his Eton-nurtured capacity for intellectual wrangling is unable to save the party from Willett's appalling gaffe. It was a speech that did not need to be made. No potential Conservative voter is pleased by it. Secretly, I suspect that, despite the huge opportunity presented for mischief - a goal so open that even the talentless Prescott couldn't miss it - few Labourites are either.
For Conservatives, health is the third rail of British politics. In our hearts, we know that only Labour could ever reform the National Health Service. The Conservatives have only to mention it for voters to panic. One day, God willing, it will be Labour's destiny to clean up the mess it made of British healthcare. The last 10 years have simply shown us that it is not yet that day.
That is not true for education. Comprehensive schools are a greater disaster for Labour voters than for Conservatives. The working classes of the North of England have no hope of buying themselves either into a private school or the catchment area of a less foul State school. A Conservative government could, by reforming schools, do something for them that Labour never can, because education is for them as the NHS is for us. They are secretly waiting for us to solve the problem.
Until Willetts put his foot in his mouth, that hope alone kept alive minority Tory votes in Labour heartlands that could one day have been built upon. No-one even seems to have noticed that many of our immigrants in the past 20 years are from communities, such as the Indians and the Chinese, who value education much more highly than the native English. Their votes are up for grabs too. Immigrants are naturally more aspirational; naturally more Tory.
Boris tell us that the end of Grammar schools was politically inevitable in a democracy because;
it became an arithmetical and electoral certainty, over time, that the rejects outnumbered the successful
What tosh. He should not fall into the elitist trap of describing those who failed to get into Grammar Schools as "rejects." In doing so he defames the work of generations of dedicated teachers who were able to provide excellent education to those who went to Secondary Modern schools; education carefully targetted to their abilities.
I was taught by some of them. I took the 11+ but my area went comprehensive that year and I was never told the results. Instead, I was sent to the local secondary modern school - rebadged as a comprehensive. There were some superb teachers there, doing their best. They were as bemused by me as no doubt the Grammar School teachers in the next town were by some of their new intake. However, they had long shaped the destinies of the majority of children in my town. Their former pupils were respectable, hard-working and better-educated than their children and grandchildren are today. They are the ones failed by Anthony "I will close every fucking grammar school" Crosland's public school ultra-leftism, every bit as much as people like me.
As for the electoral arithmetic, what defeatism on Boris's part! The kind of ignorant chavs who think that selective schools are wrong because their little Shane, Wayne or Sheena will never pass an exam will not only never vote Conservative, but will probably never vote at all. They are irrelevant. It's all about triangulation, Boris. Margaret's policy to steal Labour votes was to sell council houses. Everyone was astonished by the aspirational instincts she unleashed in the Labour heartlands. Your equivalent could be the restoration of educational opportunity to the working class.
No-one, in their hearts, truly believes in comprehensive schools. Don't listen to what Labour politicians say about it. Look at what they do when it comes to their own children. Cherie Blair, Diane Abbott, Ruth Kelly and Polly Toynbee would be secretly delighted if selective State education was brought back. Of course they won't say so. They will kick, scream and defame, but so what? Triangulate them and move on.
Willetts has a point to precisely this extent. It is best not to hark back to the past. We should not speak of "Grammar Schools" or "the 11+". We need new branding and some less crude (and less final) selection mechanism. If he will apply his two brains to devising such a system; one that Kent Conservatives would accept instead of their Grammar Schools, he will be on to an election-winner.
More than anything else, this is what the Conservatives can do for Britain's future. No nation can long survive the huge waste of human potential represented by the present system. To compete in the world, we need to maximise the potential of every pupil. Even the Socialists know it in their hearts. Even as they ranted against us, they would be secretly, guiltily glad that we had saved their grandchildren from Crosland's evil legacy.