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Excellent education shouldn't be for a select few

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20 September 2016
Exams must be equal to all With a new Prime Minister come new arguments and old ideas, and few things are as sure to raise passions as the choice and quality of schools available to parents. Education is, rightly or wrongly, intensely political – Theresa May would hardly have chosen the expansion of grammar schools as her first big policy announcement otherwise – but it is also something that shapes us for the rest of our lives and is deeply felt. 

Supporters of the grammar school system point to the good results and the promise of a traditional education similar in style to a private school but with none of the cost. Opponents feel that segregating children based on testing at a young age rewards privilege and leaves otherwise bright children behind. The data based on our existing selective areas is clear; there is no aggregate improvement in results in areas that are selective, but this is a debate that goes much deeper than raw data.

Many beneficiaries of a grammar education commend the strict discipline, neat uniforms and rigour, and insist it moulded them into the success they are today. On the other side of the argument, there are people like my mum – someone who failed the 11 plus and went to a secondary modern. She was told she was a “slow learner” and holds on to this belief even today. Luckily, my mum didn’t pass down her lack of confidence about schooling to me but many families do, with debilitating consequences.

As the MP for Lewisham East I have to be honest and admit that whilst we have superb primary schools in the area, many of our secondary schools are struggling. I don’t have children myself but I absolutely understand the desire of any parent who wants the very best for their child. I would never criticise a parent for wanting to send their child to the best school. However, I do condemn any politician who simply gives up on struggling schools and the children they serve. 

Our new Prime Minister could have made an optimistic curtain-raising speech about her ambitions for all our children but, tellingly, she made a speech about the destiny of only the brightest. As the lucky recipient of an excellent comprehensive education, it appears I know something that Theresa May doesn’t. Our communities and our country will only succeed if we pour the energy, ingenuity and commitment of our educational establishment into all of our children, not just a select few.

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