Monday, May 28, 2007


Cameron Must Win his Civil War Over Grammars

As an ex grammar school boy myself(Priory Boys Shrewbury and not MGS as pictured) I've been intrigued by the Tory nascent civil war over what I had concluded was the near dead body of this issue. It's often been said that Cameron needs a 'Clause Four' moment on which he can overthrow right-wing opponents to prove to voters that his party has really changed and not lying several points to his right as the polls suggest when the question is posed. The problem is that no really convenient issue has been available up till now. And the Grammar Schools issue is not really it either.

As the political journalist savant, Peter Riddell points out, this topic has not been deliberately targeted as a symbol, as was Clause Four, nor is it defended merely by party dinosaurs; the issue is one of real substance for Conservatives and opposition comes from across the party gamut. As the always lively and informative Peter Wilby judges, the policy has received a righteous kicking from the right-leaning press with The Daily Telegraph's leader and columnists, including Chris Woodhead, Simon Heffer, Rees-Mogg plus, inevitably, the Mail's Grande Dame, Melanie Phillips not to mention many others weighing in with cries of 'surrender', 'defeatism' or, as in the case of (the Telegraph's) Alive Thompson as follows:

'Willetts has alienated just about every middle-class parent by saying he disapproves of aspiration ... The only pupils he cares about are the 13% who are entitled to free school meals."

One right(ish) columnist who did defend Cameron and Willetts was Simon Jenkins in The Sunday Times who
identified all the reasons why the party leadership have no choice but to junk selection. He points out that the 11+ had become hugely unpopular by the 1960s:

At political meetings at the end of the 1960s, the then education spokesman, Edward Boyle, was torn limb from limb by Conservative voters infuriated at their children who had “failed” the 11-plus being sent to secondary moderns, along with 70%-80% of each age group. They had regarded the grammars as “their schools”. The 11-plus, they said, lost them the 1964 election and would lose them every one until it was abolished. Margaret Thatcher recognised this as education secretary after 1970, as has the Tory party in practice ever since.

Maybe it's not quite the right issue at not quite the right time but the genie cannot now be put back into the bottle. Cameron has to engage in trench warfare, ensuring that he and Willets win the argument, thus re-educating their party and confirming it does have some of kind of empathy with the '13% who are entitled to free school meals' - not to mention the 60% odd extra who tended to fail that unfair and unworkable selection process at the age of 11.

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