The PM Wants To Have New Grammar Schools
What is the single best engine of social mobility? A good school. What, according to the generally accepted measures, is the best type of school in the state system? A grammar school (164 survive in England). What is the only type of school banned by law from coming into existence? A grammar school (by an Act of Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1998).
By Charles Moore
9 September 2016 • 5:00pm
“If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every f—ing grammar school in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland.”
It is this perversity which Theresa May has boldly decided to attack. Few of the opponents of grammar schools argue that they are bad schools. It is almost because they are good schools that they were first attacked roughly 50 years ago, then – in most places – abolished from the 1960s to the 1980s, and then (see above) banned. The fact that they were good made them, in the eyes of their critics, an offence to everyone not attending them. It was as if there was only so much goodness available in education, and therefore it was wrong to concentrate it. The answer, in such people’s minds, was to try to ensure that every child received (thinly spread) amounts of goodness equally.
Anyone who really wants social mobility must reject that argument. It should be rejected not only in education, but in everything. It is where equality hurts opportunity. British success in the Olympic Games, which has resulted from uncompromising excellence, does not disadvantage young people who can never reach such heights: it inspires them. The prowess of Ascot races does not ruin dear little Cartmel; nor does the National Theatre destroy a northern rep.
On the contrary, the best strengthens the ecosystem of the rest (and vice versa). The good is not a finite quantity forcing everyone to quarrel about its distribution. It is more like a plentiful seed. As in the Parable of the Sower, the trick is to cast the seed upon the right ground. Grammar schools are the right ground – though not the only right ground – in which good education can grow. So Mrs May says that more grammar schools must mean “more good school places”. She is right – and her return of power to faith schools to let them live up to their name and admit chiefly on the basis of religion will have the same effect.
“We have already got selection, haven’t we? It’s called selection by house price.”
People object that such encouragement of good schools always favours “the middle class”, as if this were an obvious evil. But the middle class is not an unchanging group of people from which others are inevitably excluded. It has lots of new recruits and is much, much larger than it used to be. Indeed, it is, among other things, a phrase which describes those who are achieving social mobility. Anyone who wants social mobility should therefore want a growing, thriving middle class. If the middle classes then pass the benefits of that mobility on to their children, what is wrong with that? That is how it is supposed to work. The phrase “middle class” should never be a term of abuse.
In this respect, I feel cautious about Mrs May’s suggestion that new grammar schools would be required to admit “a proportion of pupils from lower income households”. One would hope that, in their quest for suitable pupils, grammar schools would encourage children from poor households. One would particularly hope that grammar schools would set up in places where poorer people live. It could even be that some grammar schools should be founded (as many were, centuries ago – that’s how Eton started) with the specific task of educating the poor. But isn’t it part of the egalitarian, engineering mentality which Mrs May is bravely rejecting to be suspicious of the middle classes and demand that they justify their existence by taking quotas?
Good education is an absolute good, even for the comfortably off. In reaching out to people who are what she calls “just managing”, Mrs May is identifying the right target, but in speaking so much about “ordinary, working-class families”, she may be employing the wrong phrase. Their cause can be wielded, foolishly, against the middle class. For the same reason, her attempt to judge the “public benefit” offered by independent schools by how much they sponsor state schools could pervert their educational duty.
The words “brave” and “bold” are right for what Mrs May is attempting because of the weird politics which have always bedevilled this subject. The grammar school issue, which should, in theory, have benefited the Conservatives over the years, rarely did so. This is because, under the old binary split in the days of the 11-plus, fewer than 20 per cent of pupils went on to grammar schools. Many parents, including Tory ones, of children who didn’t make the grade felt aggrieved. They outnumbered those who loved the grammars.
When she became Education Secretary in 1970, Margaret Thatcher, a proud grammar-school girl, acted to protect grammars which councils were trying to close against the wishes of parents. She saved 94 of them. But she also permitted the creation of 3,286 comprehensives – the largest under any secretary of state – because that was what local authorities, in most places broadly supported by parents, were demanding.
Thus ensued the dreadful era of the “bog standard comprehensive”. In climbing out of that bog, successive Conservative ministers have avoided the grammar school issue because they have not wanted to get caught in the same electoral numbers trap again. The long, gradually successful battle for grant-maintained schools, later, academies and, later still, free schools has been fought with an unspoken “don’t mention grammar schools” rule. It has been about autonomy, innovation, higher standards, better parental choice and, where necessary, “special measures”.
Interestingly, it certainly has included the return of selection, but selection at 16, not at the much more controversial age of 11. Andrew Adonis (who got an honourable mention in Mrs May’s speech) and the Tories’ Michael Gove were able to make common cause to effect huge improvement. They probably couldn’t have done so if Mr Gove had pushed for grammar schools.
“The notion that the poor stand to benefit from the return of grammar schools strikes me as quite palpable tosh and nonsense”
Sir Michael Wilshaw
The question now is whether the Adonis/Gove/Cameron era of education policy is now sufficiently secure for Mrs May to take her exciting new step. My hunch is that it is, but only if she sticks to her line, strong in yesterday’s speech, about permitting more educational diversity rather than returning to the old either/or model created in 1944. Otherwise, the decent, middle-ground people like the Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, will fall away and the great gains of recent years will be lost as passionate opponents and supporters electrocute themselves on the “third rail” of grammars – arguing ever more loudly about whether gowns, mortar boards and the 11-plus are necessary pedagogic tools or symptoms of elitist oppression.
Judging by what she has said so far, Mrs May’s vision of education is of a jigsaw of ways in which almost all children can reach schools that are good for them. Previous reforms have filled in most of the jigsaw, but the big missing “meritocratic” piece is selective education for the able poor. Opposition to selection is the last taboo standing in the way of attainment for brighter children from poorer homes. Grammar schools are not the answer, but why are they not allowed to be part of the answer? When she puts it like that, she is right.
Where do political parties stand on grammar schools?
Theresa May has announced a new generation of grammar schools by scrapping the ban on them imposed almost 20 years ago.
Labour oppose allowing new grammar schools. They argue that selective education increases class inequality.
The Lib Dems haven’t called for any grammar schools to be closed but nor do they want any new ones built. Leader Tim Farron tweeted: “Lib Dems will work to block any Tory attempt to create grammar schools.”
In the past, Ukip have called for “a grammar school in every town”. In their 2015 manifesto, they proposed transfer examinations at the ages of 12, 13, and 16 to “pick up pupils who develop in an academic direction, but at a slightly slower pace”.
In their 2015 manifesto, the Greens proposed the integration of grammar schools into the comprehensive system.
Dropping the grammar school ban
What is Theresa May proposing?
The Prime Minister plans to repeal a ban on new grammar schools imposed by Tony Blair in 1998. The move will pave the way for new grammars and also enable the existing 166 selective schools to expand.
Why is it so controversial?
For most Tory MPs, the prospect of new grammar schools has been celebrated as a driver of social mobility. Labour and the Liberal Democrats regard it as a policy that will “entrench inequality and disadvantage”.
So how will the Prime Minister address their concerns?
Mrs May has proposed new grammar schools will have to take a proportion of pupils from lower income households. Every new grammar school will be required to establish a “new, high-quality non-selective school”. They will also be required to sponsor an under-performing academy school.
What else is being considered?
Mrs May says new grammars will be encouraged to recruit students at 14 and 16 as well as 11, to avoid the danger of children being written off as non-academic at the start of their secondary careers.
Is it just about grammar schools?
No. Independent schools will face a “tougher test” on the amount of public benefit required to maintain charitable status. They will also be expected to play a major role in creating more places for children from “ordinary working families”. The Prime Minister also announced plans to lift rules requiring faith schools to make 50 per cent of their places available to children from other religious communities. Universities will be required to sponsor a state school or set up a new free school.
What will happen next?
After a consultation, Mrs May is expected to push ahead with legislation. It is likely to be opposed by Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs, meaning Mrs May will be dependent on the Conservatives’ slim majority in Parliament to push her plans through.
Tags: academies, Andrew Adonis, Britain, education, educational diversity, England, Eton, faith schools, free schools, Gove, grammar schools, grammar schools in England, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Michael Gove, Mrs May’s vision of education, new grammars, ordinary working families, secondary education, Sir Michael Wilshaw, social mobility, Theresa May, Tim Farron, Tony Blair, UKIP