This is an argument we didn't need to have. Instead of attacking the concept of grammar schools we should be encouraging diversity in education - and grammar schools are a part of that diversity. David Willetts' main defence of his anti-grammar school position seems to be that they don't take enough kids who have free school meals. This is no way to judge whether a school is a success or not. What we must move towards is a system where all kids have the opportunity to excel. Front bencher Graham Brady got it right on PM today when he said: "I don't think it's true to say grammar schools entrench privilege. The only reason we don't have more children with free school meals in grammar schools is that there aren't grammar schools in urban areas and certainly I have always supported more grammar schools and more selection where parents want it." I'm not sure it will have done Graham's career prospects much good, but he was brave to say it.
Consistency is a key word here and it's something David Cameron rightly makes a lot of. If you really believed grammar schools were part of the problem, you'd not only not build more, you'd abolish the existing ones. It's called having the courage of your convictions. This is why I always questioned the wisdom of voluntary grant maintained schools in the 1990s. I thought that if Conservatives really believed that this policy was best for schools all schools should be grant maintained.
By sending out the message that the Conservatives are against grammar schools, it stigmatises those 160 odd schools who still fall into that category.
Now, let's look at the other side of the argument. In 1973 I failed my eleven plus. I failed it because I wasn't even told I was taking it. We had taken so many government tests that year that we all decided not to take this one seriously. Whadda mistaka da maka (as Captain Bertorelli in 'Allo 'Allo might have said). So I ended up at the local Secondary Modern, turned bog standard comprehensive. I was lucky. Saffron Walden County High School did me proud, despite the efforts of Education Secretary Shirley Williams to deprive me of school books.
My partner, however, was not so lucky, and ended up at the very worst type of Secondary Modern in Tunbridge Wells. Selection failed him and despite being a remarkably intelligent person who could easily have gone to university he finished school with few qualifications. Had he gone to the local grammar school I have little doubt his life would have been very different.
The challenge for all political parties is to come up with policies which make the need for selection at 11 superfluous. Like David Willetts I am a fan of City Academies. Well, I would be if they had the kind of independent powers given to City Technology Colleges in the 1990s. They have provided opportunities for many kids from deprived backgrounds in inner cities.
But just as you don't make the poor richer by making the rich poorer, you don't make less able kids more able by making the more able kids less able. What I mean by that is that David Willetts's speech seemed to highlight social mobility as a key aim of Conservative policy rather than academic excellence. Of course we all want to see kids from poorer backgrounds given the same opportunities enjoyed by those who come from better off homes, but levelling down standards is not the way to do it. We saw that during the comprehensive experiment.
When I was in North Norfolk I was a school governor at Cromer High School. The school has a fantastic Head Teacher and a very motivated staff. I learned during my 18 months as a school governor, and from visits to other secondary schools in North Norfolk that you shouldn't generalise, but comprehensives sometimes - and I emphasise, sometimes - don't stretch the brightest kids in the way that grammar schools do. If I had any criticism of my own schooling it would be that I didn't feel stretched in some of the subjects I excelled in (admittedly there weren't too many!).
I don't pretend to have the answer to the structure of our secondary schooling system, but I feel very uncomfortable that a party which believes in academic excellence should appear to be criticising the very schools which are providing it. David Willetts went to a grammar school and could easily be accused of pulling up the ladder behind him. At least thirteen members of the Shadow Cabinet went to independent fee paying schools. Four did not (according to the Evening Standard).
I know from my own emails and telephone conversations today that this announcement has been met with despair by many in the Party. One North Norfolk Tory member (and ex teacher) texted me to say: "Why oh why are we dropping our grammar schools policy? I am furious. I always said the party would lose my vote if they ever did this. I never thought they would. I will argue with anyone on this subject...always have done so."
There will be some who think that David Willetts and David Cameron have announced this policy to create yet another Clause two and a half moment. They might appear to think that it's yet another way of distancing the Party from its past and another example of modernisation. I don't necessarily think this is right. From my INTERVIEW with Willetts a few months ago I know he really believes this approach is the right way to go. His SPEECH today laid out in great detail why, but it's written in the kind of language only understood by the likes of Oliver Letwin.
There's bound to be a great debate in the Party and that's a good thing. So I was disappointed to see David Cameron say that such a debate would be "entirely pointless". It isn't. If we're going to have such a radical change of policy it's only right that the Party is given a chance to debate it. However, I still believe it's a debate we shouldn't need to have and that the Conservative Party should be arguing enthusiastically for more - not fewer- grammar schools. At the beginning of the 21st century we should be aiming to raise the level of education in all secondary schools to that provided by existing grammar schools.
UPDATE: Graham Brady has
Glad that's clear then.
UPDATE: Willetts v Heffer - a 16 minute debate HERE.