This is the slightly edited text of the speech to party conference on Sunday 18th September, moving the motion with the same title. The text of the motion can be seen here.
We believe in social mobility, but social mobility is more than simply plucking a few from disadvantaged backgrounds, by unreliable assessment and unfair procedures, at the age of 11.
In any case, all-embracing division at age 11 sends a damaging message about how we value each young person.
Actually, we believe in more than social mobility; we want even people who choose to stay in particular social groups to be better educated and better off. Not only is that good for them, it is necessary for our economy.
Gone are the days when unqualified youngsters from secondary modern schools could walk into a good job.
Gone, we hope are the days when an educated elite takes charge of everything and the rest are merely simple-minded servants.
Likewise we need more education for our society and our democracy; local and national governments and voluntary organisations have more complicated decisions to make, requiring greater understanding and participation on the part of all our people.
Theresa May accuses her opponents of ideology. So what ! We Lib-Dems have ideas that fit the practical needs of everyone, including the working class. SHE simply has the dogma of a past elitist system inappropriate in a competitive, complicated globalised world. She cannot justify that dogma on the basis of providing opportunity for the few to step up the ladder; she has already reneged on her promise to govern for everybody.
Some parents are understandably excited about the possibility of their children getting into a grammar school; schools branded good as judged by high exam results, due largely to selecting only those who can achieve them. I say to these parents, do not be deceived; the majority of your children will not benefit from this policy. Sam Freedman, former advisor to Michael Gove, wrote a few days ago “Selective schools destroy choice… As a parent I don’t want a shot at a good school place, I want a guarantee and that is impossible in a system with selective schools.”
Children in selective systems who do not get into grammar schools do worse than their equivalents in comprehensive systems and there is little correlation between test performance at age 11 and later achievement. Only 3% of children in grammar schools are from disadvantaged backgrounds compared to 19% in other schools.
Even if there were a reliable fair way of dividing children at age 11, the idea would still be flawed.
Children are highly-sensitive human beings who have a huge and complex variety of talents, that can still change and develop so much. Dividing children at age 11 into just two types is crude in the extreme. It is an unintelligent approach.
Now, I used to hear a few left-wing teachers and recently some trade unionists say that in a comprehensive school they must all be taught the same. That is the opposite mistake. Likewise in a grammar school some do not benefit from all being taught the same. Comprehensive schools are there to cater for the complex mix of talents and very many of these schools have shown it can be done, including, ambitious parents note, for the very bright
Now, learning is not just about academic knowledge; the mix of talents in one school can itself be stimulating for all children. With discipline and a caring environment, being in the same school with your peers in all their differences is itself a good lesson.
Lets not just be negative here. The positive alternative is to focus on the right kind of flexible natural selection within schools and where necessary for neighbouring schools to cooperate in providing for those with exceptional talent or particular problems. Most important of all is the quality of teaching, the continuous training of a variety of talented teachers and quality support in the first 5 years of a child’s life.
Finally, if we really want to improve life for the disadvantaged we cannot expect the schools to do it alone. The school’s community matters. In 2013, an organisation called Research and Information on State Education, said that up to 80% of the differences in performance in schools was accounted for by what goes on outside the school.
So let’s say to Theresa May; if you really want to improve life chances for everyone, you must abandon your proposals for grammar schools; concentrate on resourcing local services so they can all work in partnership with our schools; improve early years AND above all, ensure good quality well-supported teachers.
* Nigel Jones, newly-elected chair of the Liberal Democrat Education Association, 13 yrs as a local councillor until May'15 and Parliamentary candidate (Newcastle under Lyme 2010, Walsall North 2015); spent all his working life as a teacher in schools and FE and now a Methodist Local Preacher