Squabbles over selection and vouchers set tone of defeat

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Biddy Passmore finds that the policy of a grammar school in every town led to the clear blue water in which the Tories went on to sink

It cannot be said that the policy of a grammar school in every town was a howling electoral success.

As the bruised Conservatives started to pick themselves up and consider where they went wrong, that was one truth that even the most committed right-wingers had to acknowledge. They might still think the policy correct, but the Great British Public was not yet ready for it.

Of course education, despite Tony Blair's determination to place it at the centre of his campaign, was not the decisive factor in the Tories' crushing electoral defeat. That was the desire to get rid of "those Conservative party people we're absolutely fed up with", in the words of one former government adviser. Gillian Shephard, the former Education Secretary, surveying the ruins of her party on election night, observed: "There's no doubt that being divided and squabbling amongst ourselves didn't endear us to the electorate."

And there is also no doubt that education policy was one of the areas where squabbling contributed to the impression of Tory disarray: squabbling over vouchers, squabbling over selection, squabbling between a Prime Minister anxious to make a splash and a Secretary of State cautiously preferring to tread water.

And the results of those squabbles - a voucher scheme not yet introduced nationwide when the election was called and an Education Bill whose selection clauses had to be abandoned - were certainly not going to overcome the voters' disgruntlement. In the resulting debacle, the Conservatives lost not only a junior education minister, Robin Squire, but also the moderate elder statesman Sir Malcolm Thornton, former chairman of the Commons select committee on education, and the former headmaster and junior minister Sir Rhodes Boyson.

The Conservatives' recent disarray on education was in a sense the result of earlier successes. Having in the late 1980s and early 1990s set in place a series of reforms that were to make a real impact on standards - notably the national curriculum and testing and a new, independent inspection system - the Tories then found New Labour moving on to their ground and claiming it as their own. It was in the attempt to move further right that divisions opened up.

Or, in the words of Demitri Coryton, One Nation Tory and chairman of the Conservative Education Association: "The pressure for clear blue water led us to develop a policy to distance us from Labour - and it turned out to be the deep blue water in which we promptly sank."

Mr Coryton, who also edits Education Journal, said a poll conducted for the magazine had found that the policy of "a grammar school in every town" had appealed most to the elderly and was least popular among parents with children at school, who were "frankly petrified" of grammar schools. The poll, to be published in today's issue, had found that even paid-up members of the Conservative party had voted for other parties because of the policy on selection.

"The Conservative party has to learn the lesson that the British electorate wants a centrist government," Mr Coryton told The TES. "The selection issue is rather like the unilateral nuclear deterrent for Labour: it appeals only to activists. Either we can be like Labour and spend 18 years in opposition, or we can learn the lesson and lurch back to the centre double quick."

For a former government adviser who belongs on the educational Right, one unwelcome message of the election result was that the voters still supported higher spending, whether it was the Liberal Democrats' promise to spend the product of an extra penny on income tax on education or Labour's pledge to cut class sizes. "The rather depressing conclusion is that the Great British Public is still in the perverse mind-set that the way to solve issues is to put money into them," he said.

He also conceded that moves to boost selection in schools had come rather late in the day, had not been pursued with sufficient conviction by either the Prime Minister or the Education Secretary, and had failed to shift reservations "deep in the British psyche".

"There is merit in a policy of selection," he said. "Other countries prove it and it could work here. But the British people are not yet ready to accept that some specialisation and some selection doesn't necessarily mean that all the other schools are duds, so Blair was able to persuade them with his rhetoric about secondary moderns."

The Conservatives should have concentrated on the very real threat Labour posed to grant-maintained schools, private nurseries and the few remaining grammar schools, for whom the future was now quite gloomy, he said. And they should have been more whole-hearted about pushing the merits of their policies on standards and inspection and not allowed Labour to have stepped on to their ground so easily. Mrs Shephard's initial decision not to publish primary test results in league-table form was "rather strange" and indicative of a standards drive that had lost momentum.

Education was hardly a key feature of the election campaign. It was mentioned infrequently on doorsteps - far less often than Europe, for instance - and made few of the headlines. But for many years, opinion poll after opinion poll has found that the voters consider the education and health services to be safer with Labour, and last Thursday's result can be seen as a ringing confirmation of that belief. If Labour can lull business into a sense of security, it must be possible for the Conservatives to do the same with the public services. But after 18 years in government, there is little sign of it.

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