The same old Tories?

29th October 2004 at 01:00
Michael Howard is reaching out to teachers. But will ideas such as more selection really convince them his party has changed? He talks to Michael Shaw

Michael Howard appears keen to turn back the clock in education, reviving grammar schools and O-levels. The Conservative leader stops short of calling for the return of the cane but says he would want to restore "proper discipline" to the classroom.

Such concern about discipline is not surprising from a man who had the reputation of being one of Britain's more authoritarian home secretaries.

In an interview with The TES Mr Howard says there are no specific punishments he wants schools to try. Instead he is concerned that modern teachers feel restrained about tackling troublesome behaviour.

"It's more a general state of mind, an atmosphere, than anything in particular," he says. "And it's very damaging".

Although he is charming in the flesh, Mr Howard did little to endear himself to teachers when the Conservatives were last in power.He led the battle to introduce Section 28 - a clause hated by teachers' unions - that banned the use of public funding for activities that "promoted" homosexuality.

He then accused schools of contributing to youth crime in a 1994 speech in which he criticised them for their "failure to instill discipline and respect for authority".

When Mr Howard now speaks about schools in Commons debates, Labour backbenchers and parliamentary sketchwriters mock the way his Welsh lilt turns the word into "skee-yules".

Yet he has succeeded in making schools one of the Conservatives' main campaigning issues since becoming leader last year.

Canny moves have included appointing the combatative Tim Collins as shadow education secretary and admitting he was mistaken to have merged the role of education and health spokesman.

The Conservative leader also speaks regularly of his time as a state-school pupil at Llanelli grammar in south Wales - an experience he uses to show up the public-school-educated Prime Minister.

Yet Mr Howard decided against the state system for his own children - sending his son to Eton and his daughter to St Paul's girls, schools that now charge fees of around pound;20,000 and pound;10,000 a year, respectively.

He wants all parents to be able to choose independent schools - albeit cheaper ones than Eton or St Paul's - through his party's "Right to Choose" policies which would allow children to attend independents that charged no more than their state counterparts.

The Conservatives would also allow all schools to select pupils in any way they preferred, which they hope would lead to a boom in grammar schools.

Mr Howard says that governing bodies would not even need to get parents to vote if they wanted to make admissions selective.

"It would be up to the schools to decide," he says. "The governing body of the school might well decide to consult and the consultation could take the form of a local vote, but it might not."

Although Mr Howard speaks positively of the 11-plus, he believes pupils should have other opportunities to move into grammar schools later.

"One of the great arguments against selection is that it's quite wrong to separate children out at the age of 11 forever," he said. "It wasn't like that in south Wales.

"You could move from one school to another, and there were boys in the sixth form who had not passed the 11-plus but had transferred to the grammar school at 13 and went on to university.

"I've always thought that it was desirable if you do have selection not to make it final, to encourage movement between schools after the age of 11."

Another traditional aspect of the English education system which Mr Howard would like to see restored are O-levels.

He describes it as a "ridiculous state of affairs" that the exam continues to be set and marked in England but is only sat by pupils in such places as Singapore.

The Conservative leader has also pledged that the party would take tougher action to restore discipline in schools.

Yet its only behaviour policy that is different from Labour's is that it would scrap exclusions appeals panels.

Headteachers' unions have said that abolishing the panels would lead pupils to appeal at the High Court or European Court of Human Rights. But the criticism does not concern Mr Howard, a former barrister. "We have plans to deal with the Human Rights Act as well," he said.

That is the closest thing to a sinister comment an amiable Mr Howard makes during the interview - in which he otherwise dispels Ann Widdecombe's famous criticism that he has "something of the night" about him.

He stresses, cheerfully, that the Conservatives trust teachers.

But can teachers ever trust the Conservatives? A leader of a major education union recently remarked that it would take "an act of collective national stupidity" for the party to regain power.

Mr Howard believes many teachers will be more supportive. "Many teachers - far too many, alas - are voting with their feet and leaving the profession," he said.

"I think many of them will cast their vote at the election for a different approach. And we are the only party that is seriously offering a different approach."


1941: Born in Llanelli, south Wales

1950s: Educated Llanelli grammar school and at Peterhouse, Cambridge

1964: Called to the bar

1983: Becomes MP for Folkestone and Hythe

1984: Made a QC

1985-87: Parliamentary under-secretary of state for trade and industry

1987-88: Local government minister

1988-89: Water and planning minister

1989-90: Housing and planning minister

1990-92: Employment secretary

1992-93: Environment secretary

1993-97: Home secretary

1997: Loses contest for party leadership

1997-1999: Shadow foreign secretary

1999: Retires to backbenches

2001: Appointed shadow chancellor

2003: Becomes leader of the Conservative party

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