If some people suspected that Tony Blair had been operating as a Tory sleeper within Labour, to be reactivated at the point when he became Prime Minister then there must be a few wondering whether the Trots got to David Cameron when he was at Eton.
This week’s wheeze from the moon-faced nincompoop is a beauty: “let’s say that grammar schools are a terrible thing and instead support the current government’s Academy system.” You know, the academy system that is weighted down with complaints that it allows sponsors too much influence, that’s it’s cost-ineffective and that it doesn’t even actually raise standards (the government’s figures don’t count because when you are defining the target, it’s fairly easy to make the statistics meet them in a satisfactory fashion. It’s a ‘presentation’ issue). Yes, that academy system. Erm.
First, let’s talk about elitism. For a long time elitism, nebulous concept that it is in some ways, was a favoured target of the left. Elitism was bad, they said, because it disadvantaged those who were not favoured. There is an element of truth in that, but only because previous administrations had thought the problem out badly. Take the old Grammar/Tech/Secondary school system as an example. This did have pretty severe problems, but mainly because the funding for each arm of provision was not fair. The old Sceondary Moderns were effectively the dumping ground for those not “good enough” for the other two places. And there wasn’t much mobility between them. Some pupils (yes, pupils. They’re not students as they’re so often called now) were, in fact, more equal than others, to borrow from Orwell.
But let’s not throw all of this idea away. Let’s just think for a moment about the kind of society we live in now. We need a mix of knowledge workers, skilled technical workers and also those with practical skills. A degree isn’t much use to a plumber, really. The tripartite system actually fits this rather well. The salient issues are to make such a system mobile for students to change direction (perhaps at 14 and 16 if they wish) and to make it fairly funded so that money is not thrown disproportionately at one arm. But, by necessity, such a system would be ‘elitist’ because it would use techniques of selection to sort those best suited to particular paths. And let’s be honest, life is elitist too. I’d like to have played cricket for England but I couldn’t, because I wasn’t good enough. Sport is elitist. So is much of the workplace (in theory). Shielding children from that is not fair to them. If we’re not careful, when they get out of school, they leave the cosy, hermetic environment and arrive in a world where, if they don’t deliver, they could get fired. No excuses. Part of the process of life is not just about succeeding. You learn from failure too, and how to deal with it and recover. Selection is just part of this, which is why such a school system must provide the element of mobility.
But, of course, Cameron’s not quite as stupid as he looks, though that would be fairly difficult. All of this is just a smoke screen. The real reason he’s making this announcement now is simple: when Tony Blair took on the retrenched forces inside the Labour party in the mid-1990’s over Clause 4, he did it to look like a modernising leader, someone willing to dispense with obsolete ideology when needed, allowing hias party to concentrate on the more pressing problems of now . Cameron is trying to do do the same; by taking a tilt at educational selection, a very Tory policy, he’s hoping to project that same air of youthful, but responsible vitality. And, in doing it now he throws himself into the ring with Gordon Brown, who has been in office ofr a decade. Who’s the moderniser now?
But there’s a problem. With Clause 4, Blair took a calculated risk because he knew that while the issue would raise hackles within Labour, in the wider electorate it was a fairly abstract and, let’s be honest, somewhat abstruse point of debate. Education isn’t. It impacts many people directly. Eve those without children in the school system may have grandchildren or other relatives there. Even those few without are likely to see the output of the school system in their working environment. Take a wrong step on education and you run the risk of looking a total fool, an opportunist, or worse yet, both.
Cameron has entered this particular arena at his peril.