BYLINE: Graham Brady
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 5
LENGTH: 606 words
Conservative governments are at their best when they spread power, wealth and responsibility to the people. Extending the franchise to the working man in the 19th century; giving votes to women in the 20th; the homeowning democracy championed by Macmillan and then Thatcher.
All of these helped to shatter the image of the Tories as a party of rank and privilege. Perhaps the greatest blow of all those struck to create an open, meritocratic society was by Rab Butler in his 1944 Education Act.
Contrary to popular belief, the ’44 Act didn’t establish grammar schools, it simply abolished the fees that they charged, opening in one fell swoop an opportunity previously denied to the poorest children.
Back in those days when the Labour Party could plausibly claim to be the defender of the working classes, it gave its whole-hearted support. Labour’s only objection was that Butler had failed to open up free places at the great public schools too.
The following decades saw an explosion of social mobility. Grammar schools from Barnsley, to Stockport, to Llanelli sent cohorts of bright young men and women to challenge the old order in fusty universities, and on to the media, Whitehall or City boardrooms.
Since then, Labour has fallen into a mire of egalitarianism – it doesn’t matter how bad your local school is, if it’s your local school, it is your duty to send your children there. A kind of “take it or leave it” socialism that has driven a wedge between Labour and its traditional supporters.
Conservatives should be better: we should be more in tune with the people. Opinion polls suggest not only that 75 per cent of the public wants more grammar schools but also, that there is a majority among the supporters of each of the main political parties.
In my part of Greater Manchester, we still have a wholly selective system and all the schools are so good that at last year’s general election, only the Green candidate wanted to scrap them.
If the problem of selection in the 1960s was good grammar schools and lousy secondary moderns, surely we in Trafford did the intelligent thing by keeping the good stuff and improving the rest? The fact that a modern, selective system can work so well – teaching every child to his or her ability and at a pace that suits – doesn’t of course mean that we should force this system on people who don’t want it.
Nor should we be so arrogant as to keep a piece of dogma that says nobody is allowed to have a new grammar school, however much they want it. Wherever grammar schools exist, they are popular.
There is a clamour for places from parents who know that their children will benefit. On her first day in Downing Street, Theresa May signalled her determination to build a country that works for all. Of course that means a continuing drive to improve all our schools, but it also means that the kind of opportunities that grammar schools can give should no longer be restricted to those who can afford to go private.
It is unacceptable in modern Britain that the 7 per cent who go to feepaying schools should maintain such a grip on public life and the professions.
The Prime Minister’s level playing field promises people more choice and with a guarantee of better chances for families with lower incomes.
There couldn’t be a clearer contrast between a Conservative Party that trusts people to make decisions for themselves and their families and a Labour Party that thinks we should put up with what we are given.
Graham Brady is the chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs