Education – a simple right – by Edward Leigh MP

portrait-edwardleigh5.jpgA damning report from Cambridge University labels the £500 million invested by Labour in its literacy strategy as, ‘a waste of money’ Reading skills, Cambridge found, are ‘no better than during the 1950s’. Despite continued claims from the Labour Party, they are not delivering. The gripe in Tuesday’s Telegraph concerning education was that universities are still admitting more independently-educated students than state-educated students. Once again, the Government is not delivering.  The real crime is that education is the key to a child’s success in life. How can children from a working class background possibly work their way to a better life if being denied the simple right to a good education?

Our drop in the international literacy league from 3rd in 2001 to 19th last year is not due to our youth becoming less intelligent. The truth is that standards of teaching in Britain are not sufficient. Similarly, it is not the case that pupils, privileged enough to attend a private school, are more intelligent than their contemporaries at state schools. Once again the Government has fallen foul of its own flawed policies.

Why is it that independent schools, free to select and governed by market forces, are able to consistently perform? Perform to the extent that their pupils are still being selected by universities at five times the national average. I don’t believe it is a question of money. I suspect that if you could miraculously fund every state place as generously as private places, under the current system, the state would still under-perform.

If the government would loosen its grip on the education system and allow all schools to become independent state schools, the forces of the market would surely improve standards. If a state school were to be subjected, as independent schools are, to competition, it would have to either sink or swim. Further, each school has different pupils, from different backgrounds; therefore each school will need to be a little bit different to cater for its particular intake. The only way this can be achieved is if control of a school is given back to the head teacher. If a teacher is given the opportunity to fire under-performing teachers and hire those who are seen to be best, standards will obviously rise. A school would be able to choose to become selective, comprehensive or specialised as it saw fit. Imposing blanket legislation, targets and initiatives to every state-run school in the country is typical of Labour’s paralysing micro-management.

With the best will in the world, Whitehall cannot understand the individual needs of every school. It is absurd that it should seek to dictate how every school should operate. In order to give real opportunities to the poorest children, many of whom currently leave school functionally illiterate, we need to free up our schools and give choice back to parents. Whatever Gordon Brown may think, parents do tend to know what is best for their children. If we open up our schools to market forces they can start to break the deadlock which has been holding back too many children for too long.

Conservative thinking should now develop, not along a cul-de-sac debate about grammar schools, but about how a Conservative government could gradually loosen the shackles of state control over education. This would be done by giving parents in the state sector the cost of a pupil’s education in the private sector. You can call it a voucher system or anything you like, but it is the right approach.


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