Below is the full text of my speech at the meeting of Full Council on 11th February 2016 on the Grammar Schools motion:
Almost everyone but the most ardent Left-wingers generally acknowledge there have been problems with our comprehensive education system – they just haven’t been able, historically, to agree on a way to combat it. Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor has grown precisely because State education failed children from the poorest backgrounds.
Considerable progress has been made thanks to the advent of academies – started tentatively under the auspices of Lord Adonis during the late Labour Government and, if I may say so, properly rolled out under the daring leadership of Michael Gove. But one thing Tony Blair did in office, which was a grievous error and which – mea culpa – the current Government have shamefully failed to reverse, was the decision to ban the creation of new grammar schools.
This has meant places at the remaining grammars – and subsequently leading universities –increasingly being dominated by the middle classes, while poorer families remained trapped in failing comprehensives. As a direct consequence of this approach, we plummeted in the league tables for social mobility. In fairness to Mr Blair, he didn’t start this. Labour’s animus against grammar schools is deeply ingrained and goes back decades. It was the late Tony Crosland (who, of course, went to public school himself), who was Education Secretary back in the ’60s under Harold Wilson (who, ironically, went to a grammar school on a scholarship). Mr Crosland declared war on the old Tripartite education system, famously telling his wife “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every f—ing grammar school in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland”. He very nearly succeeded.
The result of this ideological vendetta has been, sadly, that poor families are confined to what research by the London School of Economics has called “ghettos of underachievement”, whilst the better-off have benefited most from the expansion of university places. The ladder of opportunity for bright children, which grammar schools provided, was kicked away – often, hypocritically, by Labour politicians who benefitted from public school or grammar school education themselves and, more often than not, choose grammars or independent fee-paying schools for their own children.
The centralised secondary school admission system introduced by New Labour resulted in a sharp rise in the number of private-educated children gaining grammar places, whilst poorer parents daren’t risk putting selective schools as their first choice before they know the results of the entrance exams, for fear of losing out on the best comprehensives. Better-off parents can, of course, take the risk, knowing they have the safety net of paying for an independent school or simply moving near the better schools.
This is the tragedy of comprehensive education. It was brought in to try and improve social mobility but the opposite has happened. We’re supposed to have parental choice but it doesn’t work for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum. They attack the supposed ‘elitism’ of grammar schools – and ‘elitism’ is a word I expect we’ll be hearing a lot of from that side of the room – but the fact is they’ve been one of the greatest engines for social mobility. Sixty percent of Oxford’s undergraduates were State-educated 40 years ago. Today it’s less than half, as grammar schools have been axed under the anti-selection crusade. For all their empty rhetoric about enduing ‘elitism’ and improving social mobility, the education policies of the Left had always entrenched class and wealth barriers.
The old Tripartite system got more people through from the bottom end than the comprehensive system that replaced it. Children like my mother, who was precociously intelligent but came from grinding poverty in rural Wales, had a chance at an excellent education (which she then wasted by getting married at 16 and having me a few years later).
Look, comprehensive education did alright by me. I’ve no qualms about the quality of education I received at The Billericay School – that august seat of learning! But the figures don’t lie. Many of our comprehensives let down a generation – 20% of the population leaving school ‘functionally illiterate’. Let down by a State system, while the independent sector improved academically over the last 30 years and are now the best in the country and in many cases the world but not an option for the 90% of parents who can’t afford them.
The Left may not want grammars but I’ll tell you who does. Parents! The students in our borough have to fight tens of thousands of students from across two counties to access just 13 grammar schools in Essex and Kent, because they don’t have their own local campus to aspire to! Little wonder there’s such fierce competition, when 58% of all awarded grades at Southend High School for Boys are As and A*s. There’s a need for annexation!
The current Government has allowed all good schools to expand – this essentially means one school opening a new campus as an annex. The first new grammar school campus has just been approved in Kent. Let’s make sure that the next one is in Basildon! I don’t want to see our students disadvantaged, with fewer options than our neighbours. I hope no elected member is going to stand up in this chamber and suggest they’re happy for other Essex children to have more choices than our own. I shall be enthusiastically supporting this motion and I urge colleagues across the chamber to join me.