Have you heard the one about the journalist and the taxi- driver? It may sound like the stalest and most risible of clichés, but this time, it leads to an instructive story.
A few months ago, I hailed a cabbie who announced that the fare was on him. He had just heard wonderful news. He had two children, both daughters, and the elder one had been accepted by a grammar school. Although she was a bright kid, her younger sister was exceptionally able. So there was every chance that she too would pass the tests for grammar school. If something went wrong, he and his wife had agreed that they could afford to educate one child privately. So they no longer had to worry about schools. The cab driver was overflowing with joy. Unto him, an education had been given. I found my eyes misting.
It should have been a red mist of rage. I was delighted for the cabbie and his family, but it is absurd that they and many others like them should have to go to such trouble, anxiety and expense just because they want their children to have a decent education. In a civilised and affluent country like ours, a good education should be a birthright, not a winning lottery ticket. Our current arrangements are deeply flawed, and have been for years.
The trouble stated with the 1944 Education Act. This was one of the most important educational measures in our history. It was well- intentioned, but it did not work. It divided state schools into three categories based on pupils' aptitude, measured at age 11. There were grammar schools, technical schools and secondary moderns. They would all enjoy parity of esteem. That never happened. In Germany, similar arrangements worked better, possibly because German educational culture has always conferred a high status on technical subjects.
In Britain, there were never more than a few handfuls of technical schools; not enough to challenge the grammar schools' monopoly of esteem. Over most of the country, it was more a case of first class, second class. The grammar schools could accommodate only a quarter of state school children and many parents with middle-class aspirations regarded secondary moderns as schools for proles. Confronted by the life-chance dividing line of the 11-plus, millions of families underwent the same anxieties as my taxi-driver.
In retrospect, the 1944 Act should have adopted a simpler approach, with only two streams, grammar and technical, and a genuine attempt to achieve parity of approach by providing the technical schools with first-class equipment. That did not happen and, as a result, the system was inherently unstable. By the Sixties, a coalition of idealists and socialists were undermining it. The idealists believed that children were equal; the socialists were determined to impose equality. Tories normally find it easy to see off such coalitions of naïfs and malcontents, but this one could appeal to middle-class status anxiety. That is why the Tory party largely acquiesced in the destruction of the grammar schools. In the early days, as the offspring of Labour front-benchers set off for Holland Park rather than Winchester or Westminster, comprehensives were depicted as grammar schools for all. Forty years on, it is too often a case of secondary moderns for all.
David Cameron is determined to put that right. As the Tories' draft manifesto puts it, a Cameron government would offer "free, non-selective, high-quality state schools, open to all". If there is something called Cameronism, that commitment is at its core. Mr Cameron himself has never felt the need to apologise for Eton. He merely wants to ensure that other people's children receive as good an education as possible. After the 2005 election, when Michael Howard offered him his choice of shadow Cabinet posts, Mr Cameron chose education. That indicated his interest in the subject.
Steve Hilton, one of Mr Cameron's closest advisers, was lucky. He won a place at Christ's Hospital, a public school whose large endowments enable it to provide a free, or almost free, education for those whose parents could not afford the fees. Mr Hilton, who went on to Oxford, is abidingly grateful for his good fortune. His step-brother was less lucky. After a bog-standard comprehensive education, he drifted, until he fell off Brighton Pier and drowned. Steve Hilton has always been passionate about education. He wants every child to have the chances which he had, and his brother lacked.
In Malaysia, the education minister is the second most important member of government. Mr Cameron would not go that far. But he would choose an absolutely first-rate education secretary; almost certainly Michael Gove. Mr Gove has one quality which will alarm traditional Tories, though they might reluctantly concede that it would be less dangerous in education than in his other overriding political enthusiasm, foreign affairs. He is an idealist. An adopted son, he was a classic Scottish lad o' pairts. He won a scholarship to Robert Gordon's, an outstanding fee-paying school in Aberdeen, also followed by a place at Oxford. Like Cameron and Hilton, he is not embarrassed by his opportunities. He too wants to spread them to others.
It is easy to announce grand plans. In education, it is much harder to execute them. After all, no one deliberately set out to create a bog-standard comprehensive. Nor can the problem be dealt with by a cavalry charge across the open plains of history, like Mrs Thatcher's trade union reforms. This is more a slogging match through an endless bocage. But there are two conclusions to be drawn from the difficulties and failures of the past four decades. First, it is time to end the state's monopoly over state schools. In Sweden, not notorious for right-wing radicalism, it is relatively easy for experienced schoolmasters – or mistresses: man covers woman – to set up their own schools as long as they have enough parents in support.
In America, the charter school movement has had considerable successes in poor areas. Charter schools are privately run, similar to our academy schools. The Tories would make it easy for successful state schools to escape from local authority control: easier, too, for failing schools to be wrested away from local authorities. In previous centuries, City livery companies established some excellent schools. Perhaps they should take command of struggling comprehensives and transform them. Perhaps one of them should set up another Christ's Hospital. By a variety of innovations, the Tories would open up schools to change, and to success.
That brings us straight to the second conclusion. The Tories' education policies are a terminal threat, to many of those who have been running education since the enforcement of comprehensivism. They may not all be Gramscians, consciously embarking upon a long march through the institutions in order to capture the culture and impose a socialist hegemony. But many of them are in sway to egalitarian goals. They detest selection; they abhor excellence. They have been responsible for the attack on exams which assess achievement and their replacement by exams where the child earns some sort of pass mark just for turning up. They are responsible for the crisis in the curriculum in many comprehensives, with the teaching of languages and sciences replaced by soft sift in an hour glass. They are responsible for cutting children off from the heritage of Western culture and from the disciplines which could help them to compete in a global economy. Their fingers must be prised from the windpipe of opportunity. But they will not go down without a fight.
So anyone who believes that millions of children could do better, deserve to do better and are entitled to do better ought to hope that the Cameroons' idealism is tempered with fixity of purpose. It will be needed and tested to the uttermost.