Let's slay the dragon of inequality

17th October 2008 at 01:00
A Conservative government would help schools become engines of social mobility by taking on Whitehall

Robin Cook was more than just a gifted parliamentarian: he was a politician of rare wit who used language to flail opponents and inspire supporters. So when one of his own carefully crafted phrases became a stick with which opponents beat him, you have to ask why. When he said he wanted to ensure there was an "ethical" dimension to foreign policy under Labour, he was ridiculed by establishment veterans and criticised by the diplomatic old guard for his naivete and presumption.

But he was right. After the moral neutrality of the Nineties, which allowed the Balkans to become a theatre of genocide, foreign policy did need an ethical dimension. The same holds for all politics.

Of course, there will always be cynics ready to decry the place of ethics in any sort of politics. But I think politics is about taking establishments on. In education, there is a desperate need for an ethical approach and a radical vision of change.

The moral basis of our education policy is a belief in the innate worth of individuals. Every child has a talent to be nurtured and we fail, in ethical terms, if we neglect their potential. We also fail economically - because in the chillier employment climate of the future, there will be fewer jobs for young people without good qualifications.

That is why so much of our party's research over the past 18 months has been driven by our anger at the waste of talent in a system in which the gap between the performance of the richest and poorest is diverging.

We published a dossier this summer which laid bare the extent of the opportunity gap. We revealed that just 164 children eligible for free school meals got three As at A-level. We publicised the fact that physics, chemistry and biology GCSEs - the gateway to a career in science - are not offered in hundreds of schools serving the most disadvantaged children.

We uncovered figures showing that children eligible for free school meals drop further behind their peers the longer they stay in school. Schools should be many things - great places to work and wonderful environments in which to grow up - but they must, crucially, be engines of social mobility. Schools exist to help young people to overcome the disadvantages of birth and background through hard work, talent and great teaching. But the system isn't allowing that to happen.

We believe that is because this Government, instead of trusting professionals and empowering parents, has preferred to centralise, constrict and bully. Whether it has been its ever more prescriptive approach to the curriculum, its mishandling of assessment or the clumsy way it went about tackling underperformance through the National Challenge, ministers have taken a Whitehall-knows-best attitude to everything.

But I think heads, teachers and parents know best. That is why we want to shift power away from Whitehall and back into civil society. We want to give heads more powers to enforce discipline, enhance teachers' security with anonymity when facing malicious allegations, liberate teaching staff with a less prescriptive curriculum and reduce teaching to the test with fewer, more rigorous exams.

We also want to see great leadership rewarded. We have campaigned to draw attention to the brilliant teaching in the best comprehensives, and we propose to offer high-performing comprehensives the same freedom from red tape that academies enjoy. There is one condition: they must show how they would use their freedom to help another, underperforming school. It is autonomy within a culture of collaboration, and it helps to advance our progressive conservative mission of liberating the strongest specifically to help those who are weaker.

We are applying the same progressive radicalism in helping parents in the poorest areas. We admire the educational gains made in social democratic Sweden since its school reforms 15 years ago. They have allowed parents to take the money now spent by local authorities and take it to new schools - set up within the state system - by new charities, foundations and others. A country one-sixth the size of England has seen 900 new schools open.

Standards in the new schools have risen, and their presence has helped to improve all schools in areas where they operate. We want to replicate that dynamic here, and we would apply the same funding mechanisms which have been so successful. But we want to spend more to focus the benefits of reform in poorer areas. That is why we have said we would introduce a pupil premium, with children from disadvantaged backgrounds having more spent, per capita, on their education. It is a direct incentive for new schools to locate, and expand, in the areas of greatest need. It means teachers in those areas can be better rewarded for the work they do.

Everything about our proposals is about empowerment, not coercion; opening doors, not narrowing visions. Crucially, these schools are founded on the idea of trusting parents and teachers more. The ethic behind that is something I grew up with in Scotland - the vision of the Democratic Intellect. It is democratising knowledge, making opportunity more equal, that guides us in everything we do.

Michael Gove, Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.

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