Full transcript: Jenny O’Mahony talks to David Willetts

Jenny O’Mahony talks to David Willetts about education and the future of the Conservatives.

JO: What were your general thoughts on the Queen’s Speech, especially with regards to education?

DW: I thought there was a problem, the problem with Gordon Brown’s premiership, which was that there wasn’t a coherent narrative. The question is, what is that man for, what is the point of Gordon Brown? He was about to call an election, and then he didn’t. Where was the vision? There was a hole in the middle which wasn’t plugged by the Queen’s speech. On specific proposals, we completely share the aspiration of improving prospects for teenagers, we do not have as good a staying on rate as some other countries, but we don’t think that forcing education or training up to the age of 18 is the way forward.

JO: What is the alternative?

DW: More and better apprenticeships, with Further Education colleges not so dependent on payment by the amount of paper qualifications delivered. We need an emphasis on the fundamentals of performance up to age 16, so that basic performance in literacy and numeracy allows them to get the qualifications needed in order to stay on.

JO: On Top up fees, you said: “we’re not calling for the cap to be lifted and we’re not calling for the cap to be lowered” What does this actually mean? It doesn’t seem to be saying anything.

DW: We’re accepting the framework of legislation set by this government. Top-up fees will run for 3 years, then in 2010 there will be a review. Big decisions don’t need to be taken now, but in 2010 we will ask what has happened to access for prospective students from poor backgrounds, and has money actually improved things for students? The future structure, I believe, is in evidence-based policy. Assembling evidence should start now with a review.

JO: Is the increasing commercialisation of education not creating a negative effect? While I’m glad we get things like feedback forms, surely the emphasis should be more on education in itself, not education as a product?

DW: Education cannot be reduced to an economic calculation. I agree that lifetime earnings should not be the only thing taken into account. But the fact that people are paying a fee for it does seem to have brought into universities an explicit contractual change. What are you getting as a student? Students are now consumers, and a good thing too.

JO: Why is that good? Education shouldn’t be a commodity, it’s a right, it’s not going to be if people are going to have to pay for it.

DW: If you’ve got the academic qualifications to benefit from going to university, and I don’t believe in artificial restrictions, then you should have that opportunity. However, the contractual arrangement makes students more savvy, and aware of what they’re getting in return. Students are entitled to information like employment statistics. What are the contact hours and employment statistics are things students are entitled to know.

JO: At York, we are days away from a referendum on the NUS. The reasons to leave the NUS seem to me to be purely financial, but would a lack of coherence with a national student body be a good thing?

DW: That is something for the students to decide. I spoke positively about student unions because the University administration shouldn’t take over. However, that decision is up to its members.

JO: Your own children didn’t go to state schools, for example your daughter went to Godolphin & Latymer (fee-paying) How do you have any faith in the state system if you don’t send your children to them? Is it because you don’t have any faith in the state system?

DW: It’s a reasonable decision individual parents take. There is a problem when people feel undermined if it conflicts with their political beliefs. There is no inconsistency between what I say and what I’ve done as a parent. I do believe in a high-quality state education system, but it’s up to the individual parent to make that decision.

JO: But if the parent cannot afford to send their child to a private school, as the majority of parents in this country cannot, how do you reconcile that with your ideas about choice?

DW: I certainly think one of the ways in which we need to reform education is to increase choice, and with smart policies I think it’s possible to have more choice within a publicly financed education system. My successor on the school side, Michael Gove, is looking into more choice within a more diverse school system.

JO: You mean school vouchers?

DW: It needn’t be a ‘school voucher’. That’s often individuals exiting the system. I think the big prize would be to make it easier for more schools to enter the maintained sector. Who knows, fewer parents might pay for their children’s education if this was the case.

JO: What about City Academies? You described them as ‘self-governing independent state schools’ but isn’t this a contradiction? Evidence in the media suggests that GCSE levels are not improving in these schools, surely you need evidence that they are actually helping disadvantaged children before you build anymore?

DW: First of all, that quote is from Tony Blair, it’s how he described them, I was happy to repeat that. On how they’re performing, there is a debate about this. These schools were some of the worst performing schools in the country. Basically Academies are about delivering a dramatic turnaround in areas where the education provision really wasn’t good enough.

JO: You voted against a bill which would have compelled faith schools to accept 25% of its pupils from other backgrounds. Do you not think that in some of the more radical madrasses, for example, the presence of different attitudes might breed a more tolerant attitude?

DW: This is a difficult and finely balanced decision. As a Conservative believer in a rich, diverse civil society I think faith schools are entitled to public funding, but the decision I made was a practical one. There are private Muslim schools out there where I am worried about the education which is on offer, but the big prize is bringing them into the maintained sector. If they are teaching the National Curriculum and their teachers are properly qualified I think it would be a good thing for the education of the children if they were part of the state sector for those reasons, but I think we risk losing them if we tell them they must accept 25% of their intake from other backgrounds. Bringing that kind of school into the maintained sector would be powerfully integrating.

JO: So you want some schools to be more self-governing, but you want to bring others into the state sector?

DW: I want a much more open maintained sector. At the moment it consists by and large of local authority community schools. But there is not only this model. Academies, faith schools, historically Catholic and Protestant faith schools, but now, I hope, Muslim faith schools should all be a part of it. It makes the choice more real if more schools are under the maintained sector.

JO: Boris Johnson. Anthony Seldon, the Master of Wellington College, spoke at the university last week and raised an issue about him, in that does anyone really know Boris Johnson’s views, apart from being generally right wing? What are his views on gay people, his views on feminism? He doesn’t give us the full picture. Is he the right person to run one of the most diverse cities in the world if he doesn’t give us those views, possibly because they are unsavoury?

DW: I think we know Boris’s views on every subject under the sun! Boris is a modern, tolerant, civilised Briton who understands that Britain is incredibly diverse. Boris is a member of my Education team and is a fantastic guy to work with. I know Boris’s view of the world would be as a mayor with no problem with London’s diversity, he’d love it.

JO: You were Policy Co-ordinator from 2003-5 during the Michael Howard era. Do you see the same mistakes being made by David Cameron as by his predecessor, for example piping up about immigration again, solely because it hasn’t been talked about for a while?

DW: The Con party has had three landslide defeats. We have begun to register that this is the country trying to tell us something.

JO: What do you think that might be?

DW: They want a party that is comfortable with Britain today. We don’t think we can recreate some bygone age. I understand that, David Cameron understands that, Boris Johnson understands that. On the immigration point, when David Cameron talks about it, there is a completely different tone, it’s about population change in Britain and Trevor Phillips praised his speech for talking about immigration in a mature way, Immigration is a legitimate matter for public policy debate, but it’s very important that people know that you’re not talking about it in a way that is xenophobic or racist. The person who hasn’t managed this is Gordon Brown, with “British jobs for British workers”. He borrowed a BNP slogan and used it in a speech! I think David Cameron and us in the Shadow Cabinet know that it’s a legitimate issue, and I think Gordon Brown needs to learn that lesson.

JO: You said in an Independent interview that the modern Tory Party was about “trusting people”. Now what does that mean in terms of actual policy? It’s a nice idea, but did the Tory Party not trust people before?

DW: Well, it’s a slogan hallowed by history, “trust the people” goes back to the 19th century, I think what it means today because in a world where people are more consumerist in their attitude, where traditional ties are weakened, you can find out before you go to see a doctor, by googling your symptoms, come up with three ideas about how it could be treated, and in the modern world traditional top-down politics becomes difficult to sustain. We needs less regulation, interference, less ‘government knows best’.

JO: One example of that from a social point of view is that you voted against a bill which would have lowered the homosexual age of consent to 16. Would you not say that that was interfering with people’s opinions and desires for what they want to do?

DW: Inevitably, you need some framework of law for a whole series of moral questions. The nature of law will, of itself, constitute some social view about the age of an embryo which can or cannot be aborted. What is acceptable at some point is that the law does get involved in people’s sexual behaviour. What is acceptable language to use in public in front of your fellow citizens? When I say trust the people, that is choice and empowerment, but in a shared polity, within a community which has a moral framework. You cannot completely opt out of setting some kind of moral framework.
You can’t not decide on stem cell research, some think it’s legitimate scientific advance and some think it’s an offence to the integrity of the human being.

JO: But the modern Tory Party wouldn’t take that particular line on homosexuality?

DW: I recognise that the country is changing, attitudes are changing.

JO: So you’d vote differently now?

DW: I think that I probably would, yes. If you look at society, there has been a big change in attitudes towards gays in the last generation which has basically been a good thing.

JO: Finally, Grammar schools – What was wrong with what you did? Do you stand by what you said?

DW: What I said was that we have academically excellent schools, some of them are comprehensives, we have some academically excellent private schools. What concerned me then and still concerns me is that it is very hard for a child from a modest background to get to any of those types of schools. It is not that grammar schools are bad, they continue to achieve their historic mission, but society around them has changed and it is harder and harder for grammar schools to take children from a variety of backgrounds.

JO: Do you really think David Cameron really had a right to overrule you on that? He went to Eton.

DW: David Cameron has said all along there will not be a return to the 11-plus, and that remains the party’s view.

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