David Willetts has been taking a bit of a caning over his comments on Grammar Schools. Well, frankly, he should have thought to put an exercise book down his shorts if was going to come up with lines like 'there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it'. The 'advantage' that grammars entrench is the one children get from having parents that care about their education. This trait is not just confined to the middle class; I have personal experience of working-class families that supported their children into a grammar school and university education and middle class families that 'supported' their children into leaving school early to work at a Tesco checkout. But in the midst of poor delivery and damaging the Party's standing with its core support, there is a serious point: grammars schools simply are not the answer to education as it has to function in the 21st century. Academic selection is very good at finding those with a particularly strong academic bent and grammars are very good at developing them to a high level. What is also required, however, is a system that takes the vast majority of children of average academic ability and equips them to function in a high-skill, knowledge-based economy. It is no longer good enough to sift out the top 10-15%, because a modern developed economy requires a much higher proportion of people with a good education to function. Grammars have their place, and Willetts was wrong to think that to suggest that they weren't all of the answer he had to rubbish them, but something else is also required.
The problem is that the Labour government took education backwards in scrapping the Conservative grant-maintained system that was starting to work very well indeed. Then they had an epiphany on school independence, gifting us academies and foundation schools. Willetts is right to seek to build on that, but it is poor politics to stir up opposition by ineptly articulating a position that nearly everyone agrees with anyway.