Grammar schools and OBEs – anything to distract ourselves from the real, serious political issues facing modern Britain
Of all the issues and circumstances which afflict modern Britain, what policy do you think would make the single most positive difference? Ensuring that Brexit takes place and that we positively reshape our relationship with Europe and the world? Comprehensive healthcare reform? Constitutional reform to reinvigorate our democracy? Freeing higher education from the dead hand of government funding and control? Sweeping simplification and reform of the tax code?
One could debate endlessly (though this blog would prioritise Brexit above all else). But two things almost sure not to make the list would be the two political stories dominating the news this weekend – Labour leadership contender Owen Smith’s ostentatious vow to ban the bestowing of new honours for five years if he becomes leader, and indications that Theresa May’s government is on the verge of overturning New Labour’s spiteful and vindictive ban on the opening of new grammar schools.
From the BBC:
Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith says honours will not be bestowed upon Labour donors, MPs, advisers and staff for five years if he wins the contest.
Mr Smith, who is challenging leader Jeremy Corbyn, said he wants an honours system that rewards “selfless acts, not political and personal patronage”.
Mr Smith, MP for Pontypridd, said Mr Cameron’s list – which included many Downing Street staffers and Conservative donors – was put together with “blatant cronyism”.
“David Cameron’s resignation honours list has brought the system into disrepute and deepened people’s mistrust of politics.
“It’s simply not good enough for [Prime Minister] Theresa May to turn a blind eye to this situation – we need fundamental reform of the honours system so it can reward good deeds and restore people’s trust in politics.”
He also said his proposed five-year honours ban would stay in place until a total overhaul of the system was completed.
This blog does not dispute the fact that the British honours system is hopelessly corrupt and abysmal at recognising exemplary virtue. If Samantha Cameron’s personal stylist is worthy of career-boosting recognition in a gross act of cronyism, what possible grounds are there to deny an honour for every single member of the British armed forces, all of whom risk their lives for very little financial reward compared to that which they could receive in other private sector careers?
While there are many aspects of British imperial tradition which are worth carrying into the present day, the byzantine honours system, with its multiple levels and incomprehensible initials, is not one of them. In fact, it is the ultimate expression of inward-looking elitism, a Country Club tiered membership system which allows its wealthy and well-connected members to compare themselves with one another while excluding thousands of people whose lifetimes of service make them far more deserving of public recognition.
So scrapping the honours system altogether and replacing it a flattened and simplified system – perhaps just one award for civilian life, like a stripped down variant of the Order of Australia – would be a worthy goal, though hardly mission-critical for UK prosperity. Far less impressive, though, is Owen Smith’s dismal suggestion of an arbitrary five-year pause to supposedly review the system.
This is a typically British muddle. When faced with an unacceptable scandal or unethical situation, the establishment’s typical response is to launch a meandering and ultimately fruitless inquiry, kicking the issue into the long grass until public outrage has died down sufficiently that things can go on unchanged. The only way that the rotten system will ever change is either for firm and immediate action to be taken, or for the issue to be folded into a package of further-reaching constitutional reform (by far the better, though less likely option).
Owen Smith, last gasp of the Labour centrists, clearly has no interest in serious reform – of the honours system or anything else. His proposed five-year moratorium is a quintessentially New Labour device, assuaging public anger with a big flashy gesture while doing absolutely nothing to tackle the underlying issue or inequality. This isn’t bold new leadership from somebody worthy of succeeding even Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. And this is the man who believes he is uniquely gifted to carry Labour back into government?
Not that the Conservatives are any better.
The main news emanating from the Conservative Party this weekend has been the leaked suggestion that Theresa May is planning to announce a repeal of New Labour’s ban on the building on new grammar schools – not unpleasing news, certainly, but concerning (and highly vulnerable to political attack) when not placed in the clear context of wider education reform with a laser focus on raising standards and improving social mobility.
The Guardian reports:
Theresa May has been warned she will face stiff opposition to plans for new grammar schools from some senior Tory MPs as well as Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
The prime minister was facing a backlash after the Sunday Telegraph reported that she will announce a return to more selective schools in England as early as the Conservatives’ autumn conference.
Downing Street made no attempt to dampen speculation that an extension of selection in schools is on the government’s agenda, releasing a statement on Sunday that said: “The prime minister has been clear that we need to build a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.
“Every child should be allowed to rise as far as their talents will take them and birth should never be a barrier. Policies on education will be set out in due course.”
The suggestion that May, a former grammar school pupil, will opt for new selective schools after an 18-year ban delighted many Conservative backbenchers. More than 100 Tory MPs are said to support a campaign by ConservativeVoice, a group endorsed by senior cabinet ministers Liam Fox and David Davis in 2012.
In many ways, seeking to lift the ban on new grammar schools is commendable – the ban is a grotesque piece of spiteful, anti-aspirational Labour Party downward social engineering, in which “equality” was to be achieved by hacking away at the ladders to success in favour of dull, uniform mediocrity.
But as a first major flagship Conservative policy under Theresa May, it is disappointing. Yes, it shows more grit than was ever displayed by David Cameron, and yes it will keep restive Tory backbenchers happy – essential if May’s government is to survive the next four years with a notional majority of just 8. But in terms of the overall education reform which Britain needs, grammar schools are but a drop in the ocean.
The proportion of pupils in grammar schools has been under 5% since the late 1970s. Even assuming an aggressive policy of encouraging new grammar schools, it is hard to see this figure substantially increasing within, say, the next decade (i.e. in time to make a measurable difference in the productivity and quality of the British workforce).
Academic selection can be beneficial, and we should certainly aim to stretch the most talented pupils and appropriately enrich their education wherever possible. As a former state school pupil, my own education was in no way enhanced by being grouped together with other children of decidedly mixed ability (and this despite streaming). And I strongly doubt that the less able students benefited greatly from my presence either.
But the real issue in British education is the stunted curriculum, unambitious targets and wildly excessive early focus on specialisation. As a state school student, I had no opportunity to learn Latin, or philosophy or the classics. And no matter what steps I have taken in adult life to fill the yawning gaps in my knowledge, nothing can replace exposure to these topics at an early age. Why should these subjects be the preserve of expensive fee-paying private schools, simply because some dull left-wing bureaucrat decided that “ordinary” students do not need exposure to the classics and the Western canon in order to get jobs working in factories which no longer exist?
Why, too, are fourteen-year-olds expected to know what they want to be when they grow up, and begin dropping subjects like hot potatoes as they begin studying for their GCSE examinations? How on earth is a young teenager, who has perhaps only ever had one teacher in history or geography or modern languages, supposed to know for sure that they will never need whole areas of knowledge in their future lives? For this is exactly what we demand of our young people today.
At a tender age (when frankly, issues of popularity or boredom come into play as much as anything else) we expect young people to drop subjects and constrain their life choices first at fourteen, when they start preparing for GCSEs, and again at sixteen (if they haven’t been encouraged to abandon school altogether by pandering government agencies) when they begin preparing for A-levels. This is ludicrous – and the idea of dropping subjects which one finds difficult hardly instils young minds with a positive attitude towards dealing with life’s inevitable challenges.
Rather than continuing to shoot for the middle with our education policy, contenting ourselves when we just about keep pace with other middle-ranked nations, we should set our sights higher as a country. We should be looking to match and outdo countries like Japan, Finland and South Korea from their perch at the top of world tables in educational outcomes, and improving our schools so that it is no longer just our elite private schools and Oxbridge which are the envy of the world.
Would this be easy? Of course not. Many factors are involved, from daycare and early pre-school education, relative poverty and tackling an often lukewarm culture of aspiration. In some of these areas (particularly around the culture of aspiration and delayed gratification) we can clearly do much more. In other areas, there may be difficult questions over infringement on personal choice and the proper role of the state. But we should at least have the debate and talk about how much power we are prepared to concede to different levels of government (or determined to take back from government) in order to drag ourselves up the educational league tables.
But these are all discussions which will never take place if the focus is taken over by a debate about grammar schools, which make up just one weapon in the fight to improve educational outcomes. We will never have the broader discussion and the complete policy review if Theresa May’s government expends a vast amount of political capital fighting furious Labour and LibDem MPs to an impasse and ends up being defeated in the Commons by a jubilant Jeremy Corbyn.
So here we are – well over a month after the EU referendum, and here we are talking about grammar schools and the honours system.
Of course the machinery of government must grind on, Brexit or no Brexit. And of course this is the slow summer season, when MPs and journalists normally take a break, promising each other that nothing momentous will take place while they try to grab some quality beach time. But the fact that the Labour Party is consumed by yet another leadership election with a challenger whose key selling point is promising to spend five years thinking about changing the honours system, while the Tories play to the backbenches by choosing to fight and die on the hill of grammar schools, is not encouraging.
Maybe party conference season and the return of Parliament will provide more context, or some other sign of hope that Theresa May’s government plans to do more for social mobility than re-litigate a battle from the 1970s, or that Labour’s childish centrist MPs will either accept four more years in the wilderness or finally show some courage and strike out on their own.
Because at present, the policies and preoccupations of Britain’s leading politicians do not seem remotely equal to the scale of the challenges at hand.
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