Why do some societies succeed while others fail? Why is it that some nations can prosper while others decline? Is it a matter of natural resources, cultural factors or wise public spending? Or some indecipherable ingredient which is a matter of the purest chance?
History teaches us that it is none of the above. Nations succeed when they put talent first: those societies which have guaranteed the highest standards for all their citizens, throughout the ages, have been those which have been the purest meritocracies.
Those who don’t promote on merit, whether crony-ridden sheikhdoms or creaking Euro institutions, find they quickly decline, whatever riches they start out with.
Deciding that jobs, or positions of influence, should be allocated on the basis of where you come from, not what you can do, is the sort of thinking we should leave to defenders of the feudal system and discredited Marxists.
But, sadly, the deluded notion that background matters more than ability is still alive, well and undermining excellence in the cloistered seminar rooms of the left-wing education establishment.
How else to explain the bizarre idea which has emanated from one of our examination boards that students with weaker A levels, if they’ve attended a poor school, should be able to automatically leapfrog students who possess stronger A levels in the race for university places?
Exam boards exist to measure ability, not engage in crude social engineering.
And the A level, as Britain’s most demanding school-level qualification, is the real test of their ability to maintain educational standards.
The point of the A level is to equip students with the knowledge to flourish at university.
A levels should also help universities select the students best equipped to succeed, by the simple and old-fashioned expedient of giving the most able students the highest grades.
Sadly, in my job as Education Secretary, I’ve been confronted with more and more evidence from universities that A levels are no longer doing the job they should.
Professors tell me they have to provide catch-up classes for bright students who arrive at university with good grades, but who have not been provided with enough knowledge in the A level syllabus to match the performance of students from other countries, or students who started the same course a generation ago.
The same academics also tell me they are finding it more and more difficult to identify the most able pupils, when so many come with fistfuls of As and A stars.
The delight that hard-working students feel when they get a string of great passes curdles into anger when they find that still doesn’t mark them out from the crowd or guarantee a cherished college place.
The last government invented the A star because so many were getting As.
Now the numbers walking off with a clutch of A stars means we may soon have to introduce a veritable galaxy of A double and triple stars simply to allow the top talent to stand out.
It’s quite wrong to blame pupils for this fiasco. They work harder than ever, what with GCSE modules and AS levels before their final A2 exams.
They deserve better. Exam boards should be working harder to get tests which are truly stretching, and provide marking schemes which are more rigorous.
But instead we have the silly idea from one exam board… that we should further devalue the gold standard.
The education system, it is argued, should inflate the value of lower grades if a candidate comes from what is believed to be a weaker school.
All students are to be treated equally, but some will be treated rather more equally than others.
The authors of this scheme, I am sure, imagine they are doing their bit to advance social mobility.
Well, as the beneficiary of old-fashioned ideals which genuinely advanced social mobility, such as hard work, great teaching and academic rigour, let me assure the authors of this modest proposal that they are insulting any child who wants to succeed on their own merits.
No one wants to think they’ve been admitted somewhere on sufferance rather than ability.
And this scheme risks tipping the scales against the deserving. A child from a normal home on a scholarship at a private school, as I was, would suffer compared with a child from a wealthier background who goes to a state school, but benefits from expensive private tutoring…
It’s because I came from a modest background – my father was a fish merchant – that I am so passionate about the power of great education to transform people’s lives.
I spent my first months in care, before being adopted and brought up by wonderful parents who believed in education, even though they’d both had to leave school before they were 16.
I was fortunate to go to good state schools, before winning a scholarship to a private school. At every point I benefited from excellent teachers who didn’t make excuses about their pupils’ backgrounds.
They expected every child to succeed. And they demanded the same level of discipline, application and ambition from every student because they thought we were all capable of excellence if we tried our utmost.
That same attitude permeates our best schools today, including those in our poorest areas: London schools such as Burlington Danes in White City, or Mossbourne in Hackney, which have more than their fair share of students from disadvantaged homes.
They do much better in exams than many schools, including private schools, in leafy areas.
Their students win places at Oxbridge on merit. All because their heads, from the moment any child arrives, refuse to accept excuses for under-performance.
Because once you accept that a child is likely to do less well than his contemporaries, you condemn that child to fall further and further behind, to never know the satisfaction of pushing himself beyond his limits, to be a prisoner of others’ prejudice. The victim of the bigotry of low expectations.
That is why, instead of covering up poor performance – or purposefully skewing university entrance procedures – we need to demand more of our education system.
The way to get students from poor homes in weak schools into good universities is not to rig exams, establish quotas or inflate grades.
We should improve the state schools in the first place. All the ingenuity that academics devote to lowering the bar to entry to college should instead go into raising standards in the classroom much earlier.
The reason I am giving teachers more powers to impose tougher discipline, replacing heads in schools that are under-performing, reforming school league tables to reward rigour, getting rid of low-value qualifications in soft subjects and paying more to get top maths and science graduates into teaching, is because I want the scandalously high number of children who have been let down by poor schools to be given a proper education at last.
The children in our poorest schools are, overwhelmingly, from our poorest homes. Many of them will have the talent to rise to the very top. To become business leaders, academics, surgeons and headteachers.
But they will achieve their full potential only if we ditch, once and for all, the dismally defeatist mindset which believes that, in education, second-best is good enough.