I’ve only ever spoken to the Tory leadership contender Boris Johnson once. I was making a film for Channel 4 in the early noughties and wrote about it for the Spectator magazine, which he was editing at the time. Naturally we had a perfunctory conversation about education. His children had been at a primary school near where we were filming but, amid a lot of his trademark bluff and bluster, he admitted that sending them to state secondary schools was a step too far.
Is that relevant? I think so. Depressing as it is to see two white public schoolboys in the final for the Tory leadership, where people send their own children to school is more pertinent than a choice their parents made almost half a century ago.
Nothing Johnson has said or done since suggests he has an interest in state schools, or cares deeply about social cohesion or equality. Quite the reverse: his words and deeds indicate he is an out and out elitist who doesn’t even bother to put a gloss on his instincts. So if he wins, hold your hats.
He has taken up various peripheral causes, such as the importance of classics. As mayor of London he had limited powers but talked big about wresting control over schools from Whitehall, which came to nothing. His 2012 mayoral inquiry into education came up with a raft of proposals including a London curriculum and a “Gold Club” for a select group of high-performing institutions, but had minimal impact apart from establishing various funds (one partly financed by the EU) to support young people’s projects and dissemination of subject knowledge.
Inevitably he supported the Gove reforms, pledged to open his own academies, opened Toby Young’s West London free school and defended Young when he was ousted from the Office for Students for offensive remarks on Twitter.
Johnson’s own now notorious comments about Muslim women, LGBT people, those from minority ethnic backgrounds and historic child sexual abuse would have most headteachers, tasked with fighting extremism while promoting social cohesion, tolerance and safeguarding, recoiling in horror.
Of course he is pro grammar schools. His regard for selection was on full show when he delivered the 2013 Margaret Thatcher lecture in which he talked about “violent economic centrifuge” operating on human beings who are “far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth”. He went on: “Whatever you may think of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16% of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2% have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.”
Given everything else we know about Johnson, children as cornflakes is no surprise. More revealing, maybe, is that the entire contest for the Tory leadership is bereft of any interesting ideas for education, surely one of the key levers for far-reaching societal change. Millionaire “underdog”, ex head-boy of Charterhouse Jeremy Hunt has little to say on the subject either.
Coincidentally, the entire spectacle is taking place in the shadow of a gripping series about Margaret Thatcher – a blunt reminder that, whether we liked them or not, the Conservative party once had politicians of huge political stature, determination and vision who wanted to do big things.
Old Etonian Johnson may rise to the top in this stale box of cereal, but in a school system heavily skewed in favour of the better off, his victory would change little.
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