City Of London School Speech
September 15, 2004
Chairman, Ambassadors, Governors and Friends of the School,
The one abiding thought I wish to leave in everyone’s mind tonight is the crucial role this School must continue to play in preparing its pupils – not simply for an endless stream of public examinations – but for life outside in an uncertain, yet opportunity filled world. A world that will change even more rapidly in the next 25 or 30 years than it has over the past couple of decades. We need to instil that next generation with vision, purpose and a sense of leadership. They must have pride in the history and institutions of this country, along with hope for its future and the energy to inspire in every field of endeavour.
I want to say a little more about all of that in a moment or two but first let me thank the Governors, on behalf of all the Guests, for this splendid dinner. For many of us September heralds a fresh season of sumptuous dinners here in the City. With a resolution to keep middle aged spread at bay let me say soothsayer-like on this Ides of September – beware the Port, Armanac and any other liquers that you are offered!
One of the questions I am most frequently asked is what got me involved in politics in the first place. Most replies to this enquiry seem slightly self-serving – emphasising "the importance of public service" or some such platitude. I should be the first to admit that a relatively highly developed sense of ego and vanity is part of the make-up for anyone wishing to put themselves forward for public election. However, for my part, the experience of my mother who was a refugee from Central Europe twice by the age of fifteen and was forcibly evacuated from her own home as a five year old girl, in a process which would now be described as ethnic cleansing, has always born heavily on my mind. In short, it was always instilled in me that Politics is far too important to be left to someone else.
What also comes back to me as vividly as if it was yesterday are the words of one of my schoolteachers in July 1981. All of my academic year had just finished their O levels (none of those multiple-A star GCSE passes in those days) and the school’s deputy headmaster, a man best known for his inspirational qualities, gave us all a talking to. "Before me today stand future captains of industry, senior officers in the Armed Services and Members of Parliament" he began. It was as he spoke that a small seed began to germinate in my mind. Suddenly all of this seemed possible, even though it would be many years before I would publicly avow my political ambition. But I have no doubt that it was in that lecture hall that the first silent yearnings of my aspiration to become a parliamentarian began. Do not underestimate the power and influence that all of you have here on the young in your charge. I know for a fact that on that summer’s morning about a quarter of a century ago I was not the only pupil listening attentively. The youngest Air Commodore in the Royal Air Force was also a direct school contemporary and who knows what inspiration he also derived from those introductory words. For all their assurance, surliness and sarcasm I believe many teenage minds are very open to such inspiration. And it is schools like the City of London Boys and its staff who has the capacity to instil that invigorating ambition.
What sort of moral code do we need to instil into the next generation of leaders? First let’s give them all a passion for life and living. For make no mistake, the current intake of this excellent school will provide this city, our country and without doubt the world beyond, with leading figures in every imaginable sphere over the decades ahead. What sort of values do we need to instil into this constellation of stars before they are let loose from Queen Victoria Street to the waiting world outside? To a certain extent, history creates leaders ? Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man. Rudolph Giuliani will now be remembered by New Yorkers for centuries, but would he have been had the terrorists not picked on his home city on that fateful day three years ago this week? This is not to lessen the greatness of his actions nor the way in which he rallied New York City after it had been cruelly brought to its knees. Fate tapped on the shoulder and he rose to the occasion. Winston Churchill did so on these shores as well. As all Londoners know, he had an innate sense of time, history and his place in it.
But I do not want to dwell on history, I would prefer to talk about where we are today because I believe that important changes are taking place in our culture, in our hearts and minds and the way we live and are changing the way leadership of the next generation will be defined. First, the pace of change is so fast ? in business, in technology, in taste ? that life today is not about the known or the now but increasingly about the new. New styles, gossip and gadgets sound much more appealing that the old. Today’s news is out of date tomorrow, last week’s news is old hat and last year’s news is ancient history. With this comes a lack of respect in general. Lack of respect for established things, tried and tested things. Less respect for people with decades of decisions under their belt and life experience in their cupboards. Less respect for the people who talk sense year in and year out – instead individuals express a preference for those who say something sensational today, even if they are gone with the next tide. The cult of the outrageous seems to grow stronger every day.
The art of leadership that we should be passing on to the next generation is to avoid pandering simply to today’s fashion. We live in a world of homogenised tastes. The power of television plagues every household and I am sure I am not alone in bewailing the dumbing down of standards on that medium. It is tough for any teenager to stand up to this woeful reduction to the lowest common denominator fit for the masses. One of the most corrosive spirits of our age is a reluctance to stand up for cultural values of elitism and excellence.
The explosive expansion in the numbers attending universities and other F.E. colleges over the past 15 years has been accompanied by ever more conventional hostility to the elite providers.
Access regulators will now enforce a fiercely discriminatory policy against pupils from elite schools. We have to ask ourselves where do we want our universities to be in the next few decades. The mass-market, bums-on-seats policy would be a disaster for the country as a whole. It is no surprise that full-fledged independence such as exists in the United States had driven up standards, academics’ pay and the relative global reputation of US universities. The dead-hand of state control must be removed here or else ? mark my words ? within a decade a majority rather than a handful of City of London Boys will be attending overseas universities, thus hastening the pace of the brain drain of the brightest and best from this country.
To return to the perennial debate about "A" level grade inflation ? the claim that higher grades represents rising standards falls down the moment it is scrutinised. On demographic grounds alone, it is unsustainable. Over the past 20 years the declining birth rate means that the number of 18 year olds have been falling yet the number and percentage of "A" level passes has risen demonstrably. The pass rate is now a heady 90% plus, up from 71% in l984 ? given that more low and middle-ability students now sit the exams that previously, when only the academically able who were entered, we should actually expect more failures if standards had remained constant.
And let’s face facts ? the very purpose of a grading system is to differentiate candidates ? if everyone passes and a quarter of candidates achieve the top grade, then the system is failing to achieve its primary goals.
As you know the distaste for elitism infects "progressive" educational thinking. Destruction of privilege is all that matters to the egalitarians. The fear of upsetting minorities and hatred of excellence has resulted in a sustained attack by the so-called trendy on the learning of the classics in preference to an "understanding of modern TV culture". This absurd relativism questioning the notion that some books might be more worthwhile than others is simply madness.
So let us make sure the next generation are healthily sceptical, and questioning of the new, untried and untested.
I run the risk of going on too long and becoming incoherent myself. I shall take this opportunity to wish everyone involved in this wonderful school another successful, uplifting and inspiring academic year.