The thinking is muddled because the priorities are muddled
Theresa May is a grammar school girl.* That personal experience, combined with the success of her career, might well be at the root of her enthusiasm for the system which she so lauded yesterday; many who believe they benefitted personally from a system become advocates for its wider adoption. If so, her enthusiasm is misplaced.
Coming into office on a pledge of social mobility, it’s perhaps not too surprising that she’s opted to promote lifting the ban on new grammars. Their supporters have long promoted the schools’ ability to select on merit rather than postcode, and the positive effects that selection brings in terms of attitude and parental support. Their detractors simply turn the table and point to the nature of the inevitable mirror-image secondary modern schools, and the labelling of the majority of the population as ‘failures’ (often by those same opponents of grammar schools, for purely political purposes).
Therein lies the first and most obvious problem with grammar schools in principle and with this proposal in particular: what do you do with those not selected? The idea that all secondaries can select on merit is either grossly ill-thought through or a chimera: it is simply impossible to have all schools operating selective criteria without an override mechanism – and if there is such a mechanism then it’s not truly selective.
Nor should we underestimate the pushback from the teaching profession. Part of that will be that the comprehensive ideal is so widely bought – see Michael Wilshaw’s comments yesterday – but the opposition is more than simply ideological. Just as recruitment is harder for inner-city schools with poor results than for those catering primarily to middle-class parents in leafy suburbs, so there is a professional disparity between those who teach in grammar schools with the most able and those who teach elsewhere with the rest. It’s not only students who benefit from a constant diet of challenge and excellence and a largescale increase in grammars would reintroduce that division.
But there’s a more philosophical reason as to why the plan is un-Conservative: it is a big-state solution that would greatly diminish competition and undo many of the market-based reforms of the Gove era. As mentioned earlier, grammars need secondary moderns and both need to fit within a system which is either administered for each locality or which is allowed to develop organically but which once established becomes incredibly difficult to overturn. For example, if in one town with five secondaries, all of which can select, one school is seen as clearly superior, that school becomes the only de-facto grammar even if the others can nominally select on the same basis – and once it is established as such, it has a tremendous structural advantage to keep it in that position.
That kind of predict-and-provide is the opposite of what Gove did in hugely reducing the powers of LEAs to set local admissions, education policies, terms and conditions of employment and so on. But if local authorities can determine whether selection is allowed within their boundaries then it follows that they also need much greater power to impose other decisions on local schools.
Councillors and civil servants will love that; parents, teachers and heads are likely to be less enamoured with the prospect of being taken over from the LEAs from whose clutches they’ve only recently escaped (the public routinely expresses net support for grammar schools but I’m quite sure that their support would diminish rapidly if they thought their children would end up at secondary moderns). Furthermore, given that most authorities that are likely to take up the policy will be Conservative, all those battles are likely to be fought on the Tories’ own doorsteps.
Having launched the policy, it would be embarrassing to now scrap it. I’d be much less surprised however if it disappeared into a parliamentary black hole after the gesture to re-introduce is made.
* This isn’t entirely true. She attended an independent Catholic school before winning a place at Holton Park Girls’ Grammar at the age of 13. That school was then converted into a Comprehensive during her time there. She therefore experienced an unusually wide variety of secondary education models, albeit in samples of one.