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Grammar lesson

Nick Robinson | 19:20 UK time, Tuesday, 5 June 2007

I've just been speaking to David Cameron about the great grammar school row (you can watch the interview in full here). Publicly the Tory leader says he won't flinch. Privately he's licking his wounds.

Ironically, his first serious setback didn't result from some bold plan to change Conservative education policy but from a simple failure to consult and to understand his own party. Not surprising perhaps given the relative ease with which he persuaded the Blues to say that they were really the Greens, to love the NHS rather than condemn it, and even to applaud gay marriage.

Only a handful of Tories were offended by David Cameron's insistence that he wouldn't create more grammar schools. After all, he was only highlighting existing party policy. Many though objected violently to the assertion (by his Education Spokesman David Willets) that grammar schools were bad for social mobility which they feared could be used as an argument to close those grammars which still exist.

Hence their demand that Cameron make clear that he might indeed open a handful of new selective schools in areas that already have them.

This was not, in fact, a policy U-turn, even though it looked like one and was a presentational disaster. It was though evidence, as one senior Tory put it to me, that the Cameron honeymoon is well and truly over.


  • 1.
  • At 09:03 PM on 05 Jun 2007,
  • Charles E Hardwidge wrote:

Interesting focus on leadership and communication, Nick. In many ways, it shows how party leaders are no different from ordinary people. The same issues of vision and reaching people, and developing calm, credibility, and consensus remains. The initial promise, working through the mistakes and difficulties, and eventual acceptance of reality is an eternal narrative, and one that none of can escape be we politician, journalist, or citizen.

I think, there’s plenty of people around who get this and a lot of government strategy, foreign and domestic policy, and personal conduct does touch on it. David Cameron’s challenge of opening minds, reaching out, and getting everyone on the same page is, merely, a microcosm of national and international events. I find this hero's journey, to use a Joseph Campbell term, is quite exciting as sound engagement can only lead to sound outcomes.

Britain is historically warlike nation, from battles between the Barons and people, to the industrial relations and greed of recent times, to empire building and overseas intervention. By developing a better quality of action and relationship building, everyone from national leaders to parents can help cement a change of dynamic, turning losers into winners, ghettos into places you want to visit, and a new renaissance of industry, creativity, and international standing.

All hail the chief!

  • 2.
  • At 10:11 PM on 05 Jun 2007,
  • r.muggeridge wrote:

Let us hope so! The "honeymoon" over that is!
Cameron's shallowness is worryingly upfront: He is not shy of making any statement that will court the Voters' interest.
It is a very disturbing trend. The man seems devoid of any point of principle: Put another way, can anyone perceive of any issue on which Cameron himself would hold-fast, or even resign!?
No, I thought not.
As one who mistakenly thought Blair would usher in an enlightened middle-way politics of the 21st Century & who sees Brown's assumption of the throne as totally without English electoral support I do fear for GB's future. Ming Campbell is an unelectable liability, Brown is a post-devolution Scot without credibility & Cameron is a dangerously ambitious media functionary.
God help the nation State & Long Live Her Majesty!

  • 3.
  • At 10:15 PM on 05 Jun 2007,
  • Davel wrote:

Cameron's honeymoon is over. Brown's is yet to start ! But what sort of honeymoon destination will it be for Mr Brown ? Blairite cruise and ' a place in the sun' or a Margaret Beckett spin round the UK in a battered old caravan ?

Regardless, sooner or later he has to face Alex Salmond and a fist full of barbed confetti !

I think your analysis is correct but...

What Cameron, Willetts and others apparently now accept is that the familiar claim that grammar schools offered an "escape from poverty" to bright working-class children otherwise denied real educational opportunity relied heavily on highlighting individual successes, without establishing how representative they actually were. If this is historically accurate, then what is the situation today? The truth is that the surviving 164 grammar schools are, in the main, schools for the middle classes.

  • 5.
  • At 11:11 PM on 05 Jun 2007,
  • Stuart Singleton-White wrote:

It also shows that the Tories continue to miss the main point of the case Mr Willets made. Grammar schools ARE bad for social mobility. Unfortunately neither the Tories nor Labour have the courage to get rid of them. Leaving the education of our children to the madness of selection and the craziness of allowing a market place of Academies, Trusts, and faith schools increasingly selecting their pupils and entrenching class and religious divides in our society.

  • 6.
  • At 11:25 PM on 05 Jun 2007,
  • Mark Fitzpatrick wrote:

I am amazed no-one has used the phrase 'postcode lottery' with regards to the grammar schools debate. Why should kids in areas with grammar schools be subject to the harshness of the 11-plus? In my village primary school (Woolhampton CofE, Berkshire) only two of us passed the 11 plus test in my year. I went on to have a great education (St Barts, Newbury), but those who failed the test were not so lucky. As a liberal, I do believe in choice, but the 11 plus seems to remove choice and put barriers in front of young people.

  • 7.
  • At 11:55 PM on 05 Jun 2007,
  • Bos wrote:

The presentation disaster arises from the attempt to find simple sound bites in an intricate issue.
The name: "Grammar School" evokes images of old England, excellence and opportunity. Times change, needs change, schools have to change.
A Grammar School in 2007 is nothing like a Grammar School in 1957. The curriculum is different, teaching and learning styles are different. What remains is the concept of sponsoring the social mobility of people based upon a measurement of their skills at age 11.

Of course, 1950s Grammar schools won't be rebuilt, but every nation needs to find ways of developing the potential of every one of its youngsters. So far Britain has not achieved it. Rather than defending ancient monuments, perhaps we need to defend our national interest and provide good schools and colleges for eveyone. Maybe Two Brains Willets was trying to say this. I think he was, and if he was, I think he's right. Just because he's bright and his presentation is difficult to follow, it doesn't mean his ideas are not good. It's another media short-circuiting of teh issue at point.

How refreshing it would be if we could move the discussion from spin to substance. We need visionary ideas for everyone to learn and develop their skills.

  • 8.
  • At 11:55 PM on 05 Jun 2007,
  • Ed Manning wrote:

My Dad grew up on a Council Estate went to a grammar school and got into Oxford University. He got onto a Local Government management training scheme and became Head of HR (Manpower Services then) for a City Council.

It is difficult to see how that would have happened if he had gone to a Comprehensive.

I am certainly not anti-Grammar we just need first rate vocational education as well. I'm in my thirties with children and Cameron's policies just seem like repackaged New Labour, and I want something different.

  • 9.
  • At 07:06 AM on 06 Jun 2007,
  • Mike wrote:

It's depressing how easily the Tory's opponents can get away with deliberately over-complicating the party's education policy. They present the policy of not extending the grammar system to mean all grammars will be closed. Then, when Cameron points out that this is not the case and, therefore, in the few areas where there are wholly selective systems they will remain (and may need to increase or decrease their number of schools depending on population changes), this is presented as a U-turn and "weakness".

Cameron has shown great strength in pushing through this and many other changes since becoming Tory leader. He's got my vote, I just hope that others see through Labour's personal attacks to the real issues and judge fairly based on fact.

  • 10.
  • At 07:40 AM on 06 Jun 2007,
  • Albert wrote:

Hi Nick,

Wellcome back. The latest fight with the Tory's grassroots (which has been well hidden) is just the start of a very long fight, not to change the Tory conservative way of thinking, but the dawn of a new leader.
The Tory party require a true blue conservative leader who comes up with new ideas for the PARTY first and then for the nation. Copying Blair's legacy is not going to take us far.
Change the leader, I say!

  • 11.
  • At 08:36 AM on 06 Jun 2007,
  • Chris Wills wrote:

I am and always have been a Tory supporter but I am growing concerned by David Cameron's recent actions. I think he has to become less worried about trying to grab the middle ground and stick to his ideals (whatever they might be). It is clear from the Grammar school row that he is trying too hard to pander to what he thinks people might want him to say so I have a simple message for him.
Stop reading the papers and listening to the media and get out and ask your real supporters what they want - you remember us, we're the ones who are actually going to go out and vote at a general election, even if it's raining on the day. Does it really matter if we haven't won back Manchester in the local council elections or if some people in some areas will never vote Tory? Stop trying to be all things to all people; you are not Superman or the Messiah, you are a politician who hopefully has a set of ideals and if those ideals are believed and wanted by the electorate then you will become Prime Minister. Do you want to be a politician who promises everything to everyone then can't deliver?
Politics is about timing. Maggie was exactly right for her time but overstayed her welcome, the same with Tony Blair. Even John Major will probably eventually be seen to be right for his time but Neil Kinnock wasn't. John Smith may have been right but never got his chance.
David Cameron, you will not become Prime Minister by trying to please everybody, you will only get there if you try to be true to yourself and the time is right.

  • 12.
  • At 08:56 AM on 06 Jun 2007,
  • Jeremy Moore wrote:

I do not regard the Grammar Schools issue as anything more than blimpish harrumphing from a small minority of dyed in the wool reactionaries, harking back to some mythical golden time.
The fact is that what is needed are better schools for the many, for most people Grammar Schools are an irrelevance.
Having taken the trouble to read the Tory Education proposals it seems to me to be a well reasoned piece of work
David Cameron is the only game in town. His political instincts are right and he must stick to his guns and his party will follow

  • 13.
  • At 08:59 AM on 06 Jun 2007,
  • Jon F wrote:

If one thing could be said about Maggie, rightly or wrongly she stuck to her beliefs. That is all I ask of David Cameron. Don't swing this way and that depending on the political and public whims of the day. Have your own beliefs and stick to them. Then I will vote for him.

  • 14.
  • At 10:27 AM on 06 Jun 2007,
  • theshoelace wrote:

Maybe David Cameron should take a leaf from Sarkozy's book instead of Tony Blair's. For years, his party was led by Chirac who was very much centre right and always tried to be all things to all people.

If Sarkozy had kept that status quo, he probably would have lost the recent elections. Instead, he set out a few but very clear and easily understood policies (tax cuts on extra working hours, minimum public services during strikes, opposition to Turkey's entry in the EU) which were clearly right wing, thus going against the current thinking that you have to occupy the centre ground at whatever cost.

He won a clear victory which shows that what matters is not where you are (the centre ground or any other grounds) but what you want to do. Cameron doesn't need a 'policy blitz', just four, maybe five maximum big ideas that his party and 51% of voters can feel comfortable backing. Those ideas need to be clear and simply articulated so that they can be summed up in a few words or a single sentence.

  • 15.
  • At 10:35 AM on 06 Jun 2007,
  • Turkeybellyboy wrote:

If DC learns to consult, then he'll not get ambushed like this. If he doesn't then he won't succeed.

I agree that the Tories need to shake up how the Electorate sees them, and whilst I was surprised by this initiative, I think the underlying logic is sound.
I'm sad that selection is seen as such a dirty word in this Country, I think it's an indictment of how far the Education Establishment has hijacked the argument. What is so wrong with competition anyway?

Granted, we desperately need a robust vocational system, but the results show how badly the existing system has failed.

I personally would like Parents to be given vouchers and vote with their feet. As I have posted elsewhere on this site, a centralised bureaucracy didn't work in the USSR, and it certainly doesn't work in healthcare and education.

As I have already pointed out in today's Daily Mail "David Willetts is a superb Shadow Education Secretary and David Cameron is the best leader the Conservative Party has had for many years."

"Parents want the Conservative Party to do something about the shocking standards in all Britain's schools, such as increasing the number of pupils who leave with five GCSE's, including English and Maths, and decreasing the number who leave with no qualifications at all."

"The party should certainly not be tying itself up in knots over grammar school policy."

I believe the way forward is by doing what is best for Britain and not for a select few.

As Britain changes so should the Conservative Party and if that means supporting city academies with the support from the private sector then so be it.

Well done David Cameron and well done David Willetts - please keep up the good work!

  • 17.
  • At 10:40 AM on 06 Jun 2007,
  • gary gatter wrote:

Hats off to Cameron, last week he said "we will not allow a handful of grammas to be built", this week he says "we will allow a handful of grammas to be build" and then claims it is not a u-turn. Looks like the conservatives have once again taken spin to a new level. But for the man who put flip (and maybe flop) into flipflop this is only to be expected.

  • 18.
  • At 11:07 AM on 06 Jun 2007,
  • Andrew T wrote:

Nick, the honeymoon is well and truely over. Re the grammar schools fuss: what seems to have been missed is WHY are they are defended with such passion; WHY do parents think it is necessary to spend vast sums on ensuring their children pass the 11+.
After all they didn't used to; before the grammars were decimated in the 60s, children were not specially prepeared for the exam, they took it in the normal course of events and hoped to pass. The reason for the extra coaching etc is because they standard of education in the vast majority of primary schools is disgracefully low. Parents(and everybody) know that without special coaching no one would pass even though it is much easier these days. Address the standard in the primary schools first - forget free play and expression and teach them all to read, write and do sums, then watch standards in the secondary schools improve improve.
The reason the grammars thrive is not that they cream off the best, but they cream off those that can read and write because their parents made certain that they could

  • 19.
  • At 11:29 AM on 06 Jun 2007,
  • gwenhwyfaer wrote:

Yes, Jon F (#13), Maggie may have stuck to her beliefs "rightly or wrongly", but I'm sure we can all think of some less fortunate examples of leaders throughout history who stuck to their beliefs with horrific rigidity. Moreover is the leader who knows where they're going and ignores the precipice in the way really superior to the person who knows only what they want to accomplish and where they can't afford to step?

Sometimes I despair of the ovine electorate.

  • 20.
  • At 12:50 PM on 06 Jun 2007,
  • Victor, NW Kent wrote:

I have read many postings on this topic, here and elsewhere. I am open to persuasion either way but I am annoyed by the trite statements of such as Jeremy Moore and David Cameron that what we must really be trying to achieve is good education for all. This appears to patronise people like me who are obviously of lesser intelligence. We simple proles would not be able to conceive of such an idea if we did not have superior beings reiterating it daily.
The problem, Mr Moore, seen from down here, is that this pious hope has been expressed for over 50 years but the result is that education is worse, year by year.

Grammar schools did offer a way out of poverty for such as myself because there was one in the industrial town in which I grew up.

I am sorry that those of superior intellect have not realised that the most significant reason they no longer benefit such areas [of child poverty] is that they were abolished there!

One cannot produce a grammar school type of education in a mixed comprehensive simply by streaming. The entire ethos is wrong - you cannot educate children to a high standard where daily searches for drugs and knives are required.

There are more people wailing about animal cruelty and experimentation than will ever decry an unending series of experiments on our children.

The weepy-waily objections to selection are not based on any scientically justifiable reasons but on a vague sense that they are "unfair". Selection occurs in every single aspect of human existence without such puling objections. The Cameron-Willetts-Osborne axis would never be able to select a soccer team for fear that it would be unfair to those of lesser ability. That clearly prevents Cameron from making good choices about his advisors and front bench of Posh Boys - he does not wish to seem to exclude those who are unworthy of office.

  • 21.
  • At 02:11 PM on 06 Jun 2007,
  • Alex Swanson wrote:

"Not surprising perhaps given the relative ease with which he persuaded the Blues to say that they were really the Greens, to love the NHS rather than condemn it, and even to applaud gay marriage."

The Conservative party has never been against protecting the environment (clue's in the name, folks), the NHS (check out Thatcher's spending record) or homosexuality (Alan Duncan, for example, is one of the party's most snior MPs). It is just portrayed that way by its enemies.

By contrast, members DO care about trying to preserve the bits of the educational system that still work despite decades of Establishment vandalism. That's the difference.

  • 22.
  • At 02:45 PM on 06 Jun 2007,
  • AMJ wrote:

No matter how much soft soap is used Mr Cameron has belittled party members and disillusioned its supporters.

When he became leader, Mr Cameron led every member to believe that there would be no policy changes untill; an indepth policy review was completed, its recommendations discuss at association level and then debated at conference. None of this as happened, even the Shadow Cabinet didn't debate the rights and wrongs of Grammer Schools.

Mr Wllets said quite clearly that under a Cameron government no Grammer Schools would be built, Mr Cameron himself said on the Today he would not build even a hand full of Grammer Schools. After a front bench resignation (a sacking in all but name) Mr Willets went on Channel 4 news specifically to say, yes Grammer Schools can be built. So Mr Robinson a U Turn is a U Turn and we see it as a U Turn, no matter what party HQ say.

  • 23.
  • At 10:56 AM on 07 Jun 2007,
  • Chris Neill wrote:

Grammar schools are not bad for social mobility - they promote it. In Northern Ireland, we still have a selection process and many grammar schools. For many, their mission is to give working class children the grooming for university, opportunities that don't always exist in a one-size-fits-all comprehensive. As a result, our results are the best in the UK.

Our only problem is that at the bottom end of the scale, people at poorly performing secondary schools don't do so well but rather than drag the grammar schools down, shouldn't we be pulling the bottom lot up to standard?

In this regard, David Cameron could do well to remember that good grammar schools based on ability to perform and not ability to pay give opportunities to those who otherwise mightn't receive them. Pity much of his shadow cabinet come from that other type of grammar school - the public school type where money lands any balloon a place.

  • 24.
  • At 03:05 PM on 07 Jun 2007,
  • Jeremy Moore wrote:

I am sorry that you have taken my posting in the way you have.
I was fortunate in that my parents were able to afford private education for me. My concern is that the benefits that I had should be available to all. The only way that this could be achieved is by doing something that has hitherto not been achieved. namely provide first class education for all, irrespective of location and irrespective of background or finances. Having read the Tory proposals in detail I believe they are sound.
Over the last ten years the mantra of "Education, Education, Education, has proven to be nothing more than an empty promise, (along with much else)
I hope and believe that Mr. Cameron will deliver; he should certainly be given the chance. If he does then future generations will have much for which to be grateful

  • 25.
  • At 12:08 AM on 08 Jun 2007,
  • Victor, NW Kent wrote:

Jeremy - I do not want to play tit- for-tat on Nic's own blog but your background is so dissimilar from mine that we would never find a common meeting ground on the subject of education. You, like Cameron, Osborne, Ruth Kelly, Charles Clarke, even Tony Crosland enjoyed a privileged start to life. That insulated you from the real problems faced by the lower working class if I may be non-PC for a moment. They know that all men are not born equal [as you do in reality]. They would just hope that their children might have a chance for a better life then they have endured. They realise that not all children are very clever. They only ask for a chance for those who are, as well as an appropriate education for the less academically gifted.

To repeat the mantra of the Sixties and simply wish for a good education for all is denying reality. We have not achieved it with all of the tinkering; all of the pious hope.

There is no shame in being trained to be a motor mechanic or an aircraft maintenance engineer or a chef or a commercial artist or an electrician. It is not necessary to achieve a 2.1 in Humanities to be a worthwhile and happy member of society. I have no university degree but I have been a director of a dozen companies, a school governor and a magistrate so it was no bar to my life.

Summing - all will NOT receive an "equal" education as not all can fit into the same notch. All should receive an APPROPRIATE education. is necessary so as to determine what a child is best suited for.

A comprehensive system which turns perhaps 70,000 young people out onto the streets every year with no equipment whatsoever for survival is heinously wicked. Posturing about it will simple not do. The correct objective was not to destroy Grammar schools but to improve Techs and Secondary Moderns so that they were fit for purpose. Simply changing their names to Comprehensives, then to City Academies is painting over widening cracks.

Let us not sit back and pretend that a radical rethink is not essential. Me-too will not get us there.

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