I grew up in the 80s attending local schools in one of Britain's most deprived areas - Sandwell in the West Midlands. Let down by the system, I left school and college with results I almost never added to a job application out of fear that initial sifters would deem me a failure before they'd even met me. The school system let me down and it let down millions like me who were denied a good education. I am the first to say this is not out of malice or lack of effort from teachers, but rather I would point towards systemic shortcomings such as a poverty of aspiration - an acceptance that 'posh' kids get the best education and therefore the best jobs whilst we from state schools in poor areas are not destined to do well.
When as a teenager I told teachers I wanted to be an army officer I was ridiculed by some and gently told by well-meaning others that I would not be accepted into such elite institutions as Sandhurst (80% from private schools), that kids from the Black Country (close to 100% from State schools) did not go into such professions and the like. Were they wrong to 'manage my expectations'? Were they just being realistic? Or does this pattern point to a deeper malaise: that in too many areas State schools have been failing our kids? The educational achievements in my old school remain amongst the worst in the country and far too few of our young students gain entry into top universities. And yes a top university is only one marker towards success but high performance is not an accident; it is the product of a good education. We need more of our children from poor areas to achieve at the highest levels in apprenticeships, in vocational training and in further and higher education.
After school I went on to work as a porter, as a waiter and even trained as a youth-worker before working as a finance clerk. As I turned 21 and my daughter was born I realised that to give her the life I never had I would have to do something radical. I applied to university as a mature student. Gaining a degree opened up opportunity and I applied to Sandhurst the year after I graduated.
With this background and this history, it is no surprise that Michael Gove's radical reforms in education were music to my ears. He had high hopes for the state sector - for it to be indistinguishable from the private sector. And what Gove set in motion Nicky Morgan is achieving school by school, in particular I salute the academy and free school expansion which is nothing short of revolutionary. These reforms are crucial to our recovery, essential to our country's long-term economic prosperity and indispensible to our national pride as a world-leader in so many fields. The truth is we simply cannot afford to leave the education provision as it was. No child should be abandoned as I and many like me were, our country needs a superb education system that provides opportunity for far more than it currently caters for. We must be able to compete not only with our best private schools but with students from Hong Long, Singapore, Delhi and Oslo. In this global village nothing can be taken for granted, except perhaps native command of the English language.
The same kid who left school without qualifications, who was told he could not make it, ended up as education officer to the future king and his charismatic younger brother, advised ISAF commanders on strategy, and is now running for Parliament. I am not special, I am not particularly talented, but I worked hard, I was offered good counsel (which I usually heeded!) and I had a fair bit of luck along the way. Had I received a better education perhaps I would have done more. The process of identifying, nurturing and directing talented and spirited students needs continual adaptation to a fast-changing world. Today there is less excuse than there may have been before, and today the imperative to get it right is greater than it has ever been before.
I have moved back to the area where I grew up and I am determined to make such a contribution to the people who live here that we start to reverse trends, to restore hope that we do live in a country of great opportunity and that no matter what we are given in life we can succeed. Regardless of where we apportion blame let us on this issue come together to find and implement a united solution for our collective futures. Our country requires us to and our children have the right that we do so.
And it is in this context I am dismayed to see the private-school educated Labour Education spokesman launch his selfish and misguided attack on one aspect of our nation's schooling which has remained excellent over centuries. I have worked with many colleagues from these elite schools and many of them are outstanding contributors in Defence, in Medicine, Academia and in Business. Some of those schools have more than a third of their pupils on reduced fees and 10% on full bursaries, who benefits from these programmes but kids from poor families who could otherwise not attend our nation's best schools. It is clear that whilst the Prime Minister wants to spread this sort of privilege it is Labour who want to keep it for themselves (most of the Labour Front Bench went to fee-paying private schools and exercise the prerogative for their own offspring too). And on this issue it is Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan who have it right for working class kids in poor areas, not Labour who have failed inner-city areas for generations and keep on doing so even today.
What Labour need to do is make two very simple observations: firstly that high standards in education will not be achieved by bringing high-performing schools down, and secondly that we need much less union-driven disruption to the very much needed reform. Only through reform can an institution remain relevant and continue to excel. Labour's propensity to constantly look to outdated, state-controlled, behemothic models of governance and management have failed us in education, they failed us in the economy and they were catastrophic in the NHS. Our country can ill-afford Labour's ideologically-driven agenda to keep driving us backwards. We need to fight this sort of small-minded class-war attack and to celebrate that which is great in our country, emulate it for the benefit of more people and ensure that where something works we support it, and where it is failing we correct it. Labour have not learnt this lesson, they are unfit to govern and the British people will rightly reject them in May next year.