Speech on Equality in Education

Ann Widdecombe/06/1971

Category: Education, Equality

Madam President, Ma'am. The Treasurer, in his proposition speech, made an attack on the public schools as the ultimate in segregation and in putting excellence ahead of equality. Now it is not the contention of this side of the House tonight that excellence and equality must be mutually exclusive but simply that, given our present system of education, they do not often co-exist side by side; that there are times when we have to make a choice between excellence and equality and that when we have to make that choice, we should decide in favour of excellence.

I am not against a utopia in which everybody has an equally excellent education but what I am saying is that in working towards the realisation of that ideal, we do have to make choices along the way and this is what perhaps has been most neglected in argument tonight: that there do have to be choices. My contention is that we should choose excellence. Let me first turn to Public Schools which have been much maligned in practically all the speeches on the proposition side tonight. The Honourable proposer gave a list of their advantages and their superior standards which any advocate of the public school system would have been proud to have compiled. And he then grumbles that there is greater confidence in the products of public schools. Well that confidence stems from those superior standards as much as from social attitudes.

Now, it is a scandal - and undoubtedly a scandal - that there is the dichotomy of standards which exists between this country's private system of education and its State system, but that dichotomy does exist and the individual should therefore be free to choose between them where he is able. It is a nonsense to say that when the State cannot provide - or does not provide - the standards which the Public Schools provide we should therefore deprive people of being able to choose against the State and being able to choose a better education for their children.

Now I am not necessarily in favour of segregation at 11. I am in favour of segregation - not necessarily at 11, which I think is a particular of the argument we are having, rather than the essence of it. The system which has been working in this country for some time of segregating children - currently at 11 - has produced some quite good results. Mrs Shirley Williams spoke of the higher numbers entering the universities, the higher numbers entering the teacher training colleges. Is this a product of a wholly comprehensive system? No. It is the product of a system which has, for a long time, been segregating at 11.

In a very airy-fairy fashion, Mr Priestley dismissed the odd person who failed the 11 plus and then got on in life. He seems to think it's a very odd occurrence indeed. In fact, although I wouldn't exactly say it was common, it happened a lot. I am one of the products you see before you tonight.

Neither do I think that the comprehensive system, which has been much extolled tonight, will do away with the effects of segregation. We know that there are social attitudes which seem to hold that the child who is bright is somehow a superior child - is a child more worthy of respect - and that the children who are less able academically, and I stress academically, are something to be looked down upon. Nobody probably feels this more than the children concerned, so one of the worst things that you can do is to put a child who feels that attitude and who knows that he isn't academically capable - into a school side by side with a child who is bright, who is destined for Oxford, for Cambridge, for wherever else. That is one of the worst ways in which to intensify those social attitudes.

In a grammar school, certainly, you have your C-stream along with the very bright coming out of your A-stream, but even the C stream are able. But, if you have a comprehensive school - even if it is streamed, which is by no means always the case, with abilities ranging from people who are very bright indeed to people who, academically speaking, are not bright at all, I maintain that it is grossly unfair on those children who are poor performers. Whereas segregate them - give them an education suited to their particular needs and they will find their role in society - they will find a purpose to education.

Now, I don't say decide irrevocably at 11 who is bright and who isn't bright but I do say that somewhere along the line you have got to segregate those who need one kind of education and those who need another - not necessarily inferior - but a very different sort of education. Perhaps segregation at 11 does mean that those children whose qualities - like Professor Cox - emerge early are given a lot of preference but equally so, if we have segregation later on, we have generally reached a stage where the potential of children is pretty clear. It is true there are a lot of children who, for some reason or other, seem to realise much greater achievements between the ages of 11 and 13 than they have before 11. I suppose if the line had to be drawn somewhere on segregation, I would say perhaps 13 , but I do believe that the greatest error that society can commit is to say that because we need special teaching for our less bright children - and we certainly do - that therefore we should start pouring scorn on those who say that children with immense potential should have the best possible, excellent education.

Society needs the best from everyone and the way for each to give his best is to be well taught according to his needs. Therefore excellence must not be sacrificed to equality.