IF I hadn’t actually seen news footage of his speech, I could have mistaken Sajid Javid for my daughter’s headmaster. As he bowed out of the Tory leadership race with rather more dignity than proceedings so far, he showed us all what we might be missing – in more ways than one.
In a few short sentences he reminded us that the Conservatives were once a party of aspiration. “Work hard, have faith in your abilities, and don’t let anyone try and cut you down to size or say you aren’t a big enough figure to aim high,” he told his supporters.
Although he is now is out of the race, these will not be wasted words. In a contest which seems increasingly focused on pitting individual against individual, they suggest a higher purpose too often sadly lacking across the political spectrum.
The Rochdale-born son of a Pakistani bus-driver turned shopkeeper, Javid has never made any secret of the importance of self-belief. From a degree in economics and politics at Exeter University to the head of Deutsche Bank to Home Secretary is quite an achievement but, as he reminded us, there is no reason on Earth why he shouldn’t feel entitled to it.
This is why he reminds me of my daughter’s headmaster, at the helm of an academy secondary school in the middle of Barnsley. About the same age as Javid, he was born on a North East council estate and still has the accent to prove it. Every speech I have ever heard him make echoes what Javid said.
His ethos inspires the rest of the teaching team, who support and lead students in all manner of enrichment events to broaden their horizons. To which purpose my Year 8 daughter, Lizzie, is off to London tomorrow to take part in a huge multi-school production of the opera Carmen at the Copper Box Arena in the Olympic Park. Then at the end of the week – after a quick stop-over back home to re-pack – she’s off again, this time on an outdoor pursuits trip in West Sussex.
Don’t think she’s spoilt. It’s certainly not about indulgence. We have paid for both trips over a number of months, and very reasonably-priced they were too. However, the school does offer financial assistance for families who are struggling, which pleases me.
You see, I have a firm belief that young people, especially those who attend state schools in our region, should seize every possible opportunity to learn and experience new things because such activities provide much-needed context – social, emotional and geographical.
For young Northerners, this is not just desirable. It is also vital. As Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, argued in this newspaper last Friday, children and young people in the North are still waiting to enjoy equal life chances to their counterparts in London and the South East.
She pointed out that many inner-city London schools were failing – just 20 years ago – to provide the start in life that all children are entitled to. However, when the Government focused on improving those schools, results improved. Now many of these centres of learning excellence, often in deprived urban areas, consistently outperform their equivalents in the North.
Why is this? There are many reasons of course, but the over-riding issue is lack of confidence. To put it bluntly, despite all the positive things which have happened here in the last couple of decades, the North has well and truly had the stuffing knocked out of it.
Under-investment, lack of cultural understanding and an overwhelmingly high-handed approach from Westminster – James Brokenshire and Chris Grayling, I’m talking about you – which pays nothing but lip service to the idea that the North deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with the South.
That’s why the Power Up The North campaign is so important. And that, to be honest – and despite all his flaws – is why I favoured Michael Gove for Conservative leader and de facto Prime Minister. Although I certainly did not agree with everything he did during his time as Education Secretary, he did at least believe in breaking moulds, raising standards and pushing boundaries.
This has certainly borne fruit at my daughter’s academy school. However, it is not enough to see success simply in terms of GCSE passes gained. Alongside academic achievement should run the steady accumulation of the kind of confidence and entitlement Javid speaks of. As he put it: “You have as much right to anyone to a seat at the top table.” The challenge is that such assuredness cannot be taught, it can only be learned by osmosis and assimilation.
This brings us back to a bus-full of Barnsley kids going up and down the motorways of England for the next week, and also the Conservative party leadership fight. Do you really think that either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt understands a single word I’ve just written?