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The Conservative education system is levelling down, not levelling up

When I became education secretary in 1986, I soon discovered that every school had been given the number of students which they could recruit and they were not allowed to exceed that number, even by one child. This meant that strong and successful schools could not expand — the children who wanted to go to them were forced to go to a weaker and often failing school in the hope they would somehow lift that school into improvement, and this just did not happen.

The policy was a wartime hangover of socialist planning. When I explained it to Margaret Thatcher she agreed we had to abolish the set number and increase the choice of parents by giving them the opportunity of sending their children to the best local schools.

Choice is one of the Conservative Party’s virtues, for without it you cannot have freedom. So we gave parents the power of choice in education, just as we did in council housing.
I have now discovered that the set number on pupil places has crept back into our education system. Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, has rightly designated 55 Education Investment Areas (EIAs) to help transform education by improving opportunities for the most disadvantaged.

However, the chosen areas happen to be virtually the same as those identified by the government in 2002 — which means that for over 20 years there has been no discernible and significant improvement for disadvantaged students in these disadvantaged areas — and for 11 of these years the Conservatives have been in charge of education policy.

Plymouth is one of the designated Education Investment Areas, having a large responsibility including over 60 primaries and 19 secondaries including grammar schools. It also has a University Technical College (UTC) which are the colleges supported and promoted by my charity, Baker Dearing Educational Trust, and they come under the academies programme.

The two schools in Plymouth that want to expand are a grammar school and the UTC. The UTC is already all about choice with students and their parents deciding themselves if they want to apply and there are no entrance tests.

The Plymouth UTC currently has 550 pupils — which is its limit and that means it is full and is not allowed to admit any more students — it has a waiting list of 150 children for this September.
An application has been submitted to the Department for Education to refurbish an empty school building next to the UTC and to install the specialist technical equipment at a cost of £2 million. This had the full support of the regional schools commissioner responsible for schools in the southwest.

The Treasury has rejected the submission because there are surplus school places in Plymouth which means money cannot be invested to expand the best schools until all the other schools are full. This September the UTC will have to tell 300 parents it cannot accept their ambitious and aspiring children.

That is a great pity because UTC Plymouth is one of the most successful schools in the area — last July none of its 18-year-old leavers became unemployed — they went either to a university, most taking a “Stem” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) course, or won an apprenticeship, or went on to further education, or found a local job.

So, UTC Plymouth has been baulked by socialist planning and those students who want to study at the UTC, or indeed at the grammar school, will have to go to the poorer performing schools that have surplus places and then follow a course of education they do not want. The opportunity to improve their life chances has reduced dramatically and this is an example of levelling down, not levelling up.

Margaret Thatcher knew increased parental choice could increase public expenditure, but she insisted that the local authority should find the cost of expanding their schools from the rest of its education budget.

Since 2012, the government has imposed a central state-control of the national curriculum by insisting that all 11 to 16-year-olds’ schools must teach their students eight academic subjects – the same subjects announced by the Board of Education in 1904.

That is a distortion of the broad and balanced national curriculum which I introduced in the 1988 Education Reform Act. This act also provided an opportunity for parents to vote for their schools to become independent of the local authority by becoming a “grant-maintained school” or a “city technology college” — the predecessors of academies.

Within a short time, there were over 1,000 grant-maintained schools and 14 city technology colleges. But since 2012 there has been no real choice for parents — their children have to go to a school that provides the state-decreed academic curriculum.

I believe we should increase choice for parents by allowing them to vote as to whether their schools should either follow the current Progress 8 curriculum or have a slimmed version called Progress 5 (English, maths, two sciences and digital skills) and offer alongside them courses that are practical, technical, creative, cultural, and inventive — inventiveness does not appear in any of the eight academic subjects.

Progress 5 curriculum will provide students with the skills that parents, students and employers are seeking today — of having worked in teams, engaged in problem-solving, and improved communication skills.

Students who have such skills at 18, like those who leave UTCs, are excellent examples of levelling-up. That choice and opportunity to improve life chances should not be denied to students across the country.

Lord Baker of Dorking is a Conservative peer and former education secretary.
Published in The Times, 28th February 2022