Ryan Shorthouse: We must give education the power to change more lives

MICHAEL Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, has the most important job in Government. The future prosperity of Britain rests on the talent and skills of the next generation, especially in a global economy increasingly powered by human capital.

His department is also critical for the success of the vision of society shared by many Conservatives: namely, a society built by free individuals, benefiting from their agency and choices, but responsible for those choices too.

Look back at your own life: imagine what made you the person you are today. Broadly, the causes are divided into two camps. The first originates from the political left: your genetic profile, or the environment you have been exposed to, is said to be mainly responsible for your life outcomes.

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Factors such as genes, inequality, poverty or poor parenting, factors out of your control, are to blame. Contrastingly, originating out of philosophies from the political right is the notion that your outcomes are mainly dependent on your own free will: put the right amount of effort and hard work in, you will succeed, regardless of how much money your parents had or your innate capabilities in the beginning.

These standpoints are clearly extreme. A mix of environment and individual action play a role in shaping people’s destiny. Why else would there be such a strong correlation between poverty and poor outcomes? Likewise, why would there be a long list of those who have overcome disadvantage to achieve a better life for themselves, if individual action had nothing to do with it? Causation is nuanced and multi-faceted, not clear cut, despite attempts by ideologues to tell us otherwise.

But, press me and most Conservatives, and we would tip in favour of individual agency being a more important reason.

That’s not to deny a poorer environment plays a critical role, or to be insensitive towards those born into disadvantage. But, to diminish the role of individual effort – to be deterministic about people’s trajectory – dangerously strips people of hope. This is why Conservatives are the real optimists and progressives: they believe that people can change their circumstances, and that interventions – by government or other actors– which seek to enhance character and agency, can work. To be fatalists, to say poverty and inequality are always to blame and until these are ended there is little point in doing anything, is to abandon faith in many government interventions, and to perpetuate self-reinforcing stereotypes.

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That’s why Conservatives have faith in the power of education to improve people’s lives. We have to: our world view rests on it. It gives people the tools to overcome the deprivation they started life with.

The quality of education that children from different social backgrounds receive, however, is deeply inequitable. The gap in attainment between children from affluent backgrounds and deprived backgrounds remains stubbornly wide, and infamously high compared to other developed countries.

Conservatives should proudly champion what they believe will help improve our education system: namely, rigour and excellence, and a belief in market-based reforms. But our motives need to trusted. We have to show why our ideas are more effective and compassionate: that we are motivated by our hearts as well as our heads. That we’re looking out for the less fortunate, not just the gifted and talented. Our opponents demonise us: we have to prove them wrong. We have to show that Conservative methods – enabling more childcare, schools and universities to be delivered by a range of public, private and voluntary organisations for people to choose from – will raise quality and give the most disadvantaged in our society a better opportunity to flourish in life.

Let’s look at one part of the education system: schools. About one in five parents does not get their first choice of school. But they cannot go elsewhere, unless they pay extortionate prices to get their children educated in a private school. Coasting schools can fill their places, regardless. Not enough choice is available and not enough competitive pressure is placed on poorer schools. What is needed is more places in good schools. And Michael Gove – who is encouraging new free schools to be set up – is dedicated to this mission.

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There are other parts of the education system – childcare, Further Education and Higher Education – where further reforms are needed to widen access and raise quality. The Conservative Party needs to focus on improving public services – education in particular – for the overwhelming majority of ordinary families: this is its passport to electoral success in 2015. They need to convince the public that they are the Party that will create a bright and hopeful future for everyone, rather than appearing to obsessively yearn for a bygone age by opposing same-sex marriage or rejecting the need to act on climate change.

This is an edited extract from a chapter in Tory modernisation 2.0: the future of the Conservative Party, which was recently published by Bright Blue. www.brightblue.org.uk.