A Test For Theresa
And so it has come to pass. The rampant Right-Wingers are on the warpath and are clearly encouraged by what the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has said about her “open-mindedness” on the subject of Grammar Schools. Her Education Secretary, Justine Greening, has said the same.
It is reported that more than one hundred Tory MPs are campaigning for a return to selection, and in the new Cabinet have two ministers, Liam Fox and David Davies, who support the idea. They also have another supporter who is in a good position to add to the pressure – Graham Brady, former Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee and now Chair of the party's 1922 Committee.
The talk is already of a possible announcement of a return to selection at the Tory Party Conference in October, with various ideas being canvassed such as giving more places at grammar schools for children on free school meals.
There is, of course, no surprise about the efforts of the Tory Right Wing to press for selection beyond the limited number of areas in which the 165 remaining grammar schools exist. They have never accepted the abolition of selection and the introduction of comprehensive schools which prevails in most parts of the country, even though that occurs in most Conservative as well as Labour LEA areas.
Equally, within the Tory party there have been those who have been prepared to challenge the myth that grammar schools are the way “bright” working-class children can enjoy the same education benefits as those that have been enjoyed by middle-class children, and in today's jargon are the key to “social mobility”. They go back as far as Edward Boyle, the most progressive education minister the Tory Party ever produced, and the likes of David Willetts.
Boyle told his party’s conference that middle-class parents could be as dissatisfied as others if their children “failed” to pass the 11 Plus, and it was that kind of dissatisfaction which led parents in Margaret Thatcher’s own constituency to vote for the abolition of selection in a referendum while she was Education Secretary. The lady who was to say she was “not for turning” was certainly not amused by that result. Subsequently, John Major, when Prime Minister, wanted to establish a grammar school in every constituency but in the end abandoned the idea.
Today there are more, and significant, Conservative voices opposing or questioning selection and the provision of more grammar schools. Foremost among them, if it is not too indelicate to refer to her predecessor, Theresa May must be aware that David Cameron has said that “parents fundamentally don’t want their children divided in to sheep and goats at the age of 11”, and that those calling for grammar schools are “thrashing around in the shallow end of the education debate”.
Also importantly, Ian Carmichael, the present Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, has expressed his opposition, and one of his Conservative colleagues has said that there would be organised opposition among many of the “modernisers” loyal to David Cameron.
Interestingly, opposition or questioning has also been expressed by Michael Gove’s former advisor at the DfE, Sam Steedman, who has said that focussing time and effort on an age-old debate around selection would be a mistake. Grammar schools are just “a distraction”, he said. A similar view has been expressed by Ryan Shorthouse, the Director of the Bright Blue think tank for Conservative modernisers
Outside the Commons (there is certainly sure to be opposition in the Lords from Labour and Liberal Democrat peers) the Chief Inspector of schools, Michael Wilshaw, has derided the claims of those who say that grammar schools are the “drivers” of “social mobility”, saying that those schools are “stuffed with middle-class kids”. His assertion is borne out by the research of bodies like the Sutton Trust, who have shown that the percentage of children in receipt of free school meals who gain grammar school places is well below that of the percentage of children in the population at large who receive free school meals.
It must also be said that within the education service and in the teaching profession there is no desire for a return to selection, but without question there is an insistence that the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary should devote all their energies and more resources to meet the real needs and problems of schools and colleges.
In the wake of speculation about the Government’s intentions, some media commentators have been saying that parents want “good schools” for their children and that the grammar schools are the schools that have raised this country’s educational performance. Of course, all parents want good schools for their children, and given their favoured treatment in respect of intake, staffing and resources, it would be surprising if grammar schools were not good schools (though some of them are not). But the main reason for this country’s greatly improved educational performance, especially the massive increase in the number of students in our universities and colleges, is the range of opportunities and the quality of teaching offered in the large majority of schools following the abolition of selection and creation of comprehensive schools in most parts of the country, and the ban on selection in Academies.
Those same media commentators also refer to “parental desires” or parents “choosing” grammar schools, when the reality is that it is the schools which choose the children through the device of the 11 Plus. And it is also interesting that the commentators never refer to parents wanting to choose secondary modern schools or their present day equivalents, yet where selection persists or where it is likely to be introduced, that is the alternative which their children will have to accept if they fail the 11 Plus.
Faced with the clamour from her rampant Right Wing, and a possible rebellion by “Cameron's modernisers”, what should the Prime Minister do?
In making her decision, she will be confronted by the first test of her sincerity and integrity since she entered No. 10. For, on the doorstep, she made the statement of intent that she will be expected to honour and on which she will be judged.
Michael Gove has said we are becoming tired of “experts” - I suggest we are likely to become more tired of declarations in honeyed words issued on the doorstep of No. 10 which are belied by subsequent events (remember Margaret Thatcher's “Francis of Assisi” stuff and what she did afterwards?).
Theresa May's doorstep declaration was rather more specific than Thatcher's (and probably more liberal than we had expected). She promised to fight the “injustice of inequality”, to govern in the interests of the large “majority, not the privileged few”, and to help the “left behind”. But in education there is no group that feels more “left behind” than those who have been told they have “failed” the 11 Plus, and there is no way that selecting a minority of 10-15% of children for grammar school education can be said to be governing in favour of “the majority, not the privileged few”.
Moreover, the Prime Minister cannot claim any “Manifesto commitment” to change the existing law against selection. And it would be irresponsible if she were to engineer a General Election in order to secure such a commitment.
In addition to adhering to her doorstep declaration, she ought to consider how she should act if she wants to be taken seriously about any attempt to equip the rising generation to play its part in the massive challenge that faces our country, especially in the wake of Brexit. The need will be to close the “achievement gap” to raise the general level of skills and to stimulate an ability to meet unforeseeable changes. Those needs will require a recognition of the potential of all sections of the rising generation, and that will not be achieved if the Prime Minister decides to turn the education clock back to the discredited practise of selection at 11, with its division of children into David Cameron’s “sheep and goats”.