‘Ludicrous’, ‘divisive’, ‘a return to the 1950s’ – critics slam May’s grammar school plans

Labour, the Lib Dems and some Tories have all opposed the proposals


In a time of great division in British politics, we shouldn’t underestimate the unifying potential of Theresa May’s grammar schools proposals.

This morning, the prime minister gave a speech in central London promising to make Britain ‘a great meritocracy’. Her proposals include lifting the ban on new grammar schools, both by allowing new ones to open and by allowing existing schools to become grammars.

Already, a broad and diverse opposition to the plans is forming, encompassing Labour, the Lib Dems, the trade unions, NGOs, and even Tory modernisers.

Labour’s John Asworth said it was ‘utterly ludicruous’ for the PM ‘to stand up and talk about creating a great meritocracy and then in the next breath announce a return to grammar schools.’

“The Prime Minister can talk all she wants about delivering for everyone but what matters is what she does, and her actions reveal the Tories’ true colours: working in the interests of the few while everyone else is left behind.

Grammar schools won’t improve the lives of the many; they offer nothing to help hundreds of thousands of our children who deserve the best start in life.

In returning to this failed project Theresa May is shifting the Tories even further from the interests of ordinary people.”

The Huffington Post reports that the plan is likely to come screeching to a halt in the House of Lords, in the face of opposition from Labour and Liberal Democrat peers.

‘The government need to know; going down this route will only bring battles and an inevitable defeat in the Lords,’ commented Lib Dem leader Tim Farron.

“The Conservative party want to ignore the evidence and create a new wave of divisive secondary moderns. It is an out of date, ineffective approach. If the Conservatives are serious about improving our schools they should reverse the cuts they have made to schools’ budgets.”

Whatever about the Lords, May could even struggle to get the plan through the Commons given the opposition to grammars among the modernising wing of her own party.

In 2007, David Cameron described attitudes to grammar schools as a ‘key test’ of whether his party was fit for government or condemned to remain ‘a right wing debating society’. Those close to the former prime minister are dissatisfied with his successor’s change of direction.

Cameron’s secretary for education, Nicky Morgan, has openly criticised the proposals in a Facebook post:

“I believe that an increase in pupil segregation on the basis of academic selection would be at best a distraction from crucial reforms to raise standards and narrow the attainment gap and at worse risk actively undermining six years of progressive education reform.

The evidence is now incontrovertibly clear that a rigorous academic education does not need to be the preserve of the few.”

Perhaps the strangest alliance created by the policy is between Morgan and the highly-politicised National Union of Teachers, who opposed her every move as secretary of state.

NUT general secretary, Kevin Courtney, commented:

“Today’s announcement from Theresa May represents a return to the class-ridden Britain of the 1950s. Comprehensive state education, has for decades, provided a high quality education and to all children regardless of class, family income, religion or race.

‘This will be a devastating blow to those families’ children who won’t get a place in these elite selective schools – and as we know that these will be largely working class children since less than 3 per cent of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals.”

Additionally, think tanks and advocacy organisations in the education sector have sounded notes of caution about the plans, commending May’s commitment to equality, but questioning her means.

Sutton Trust chairperson, Peter Lampl, advised that the government ‘should ensure that existing grammar schools get it right before opening  more grammar schools’ and called for ‘more focus in every school on what research shows works in improving standards of literacy and numeracy, addressing essential life skills and preparing young people to access higher education or apprenticeships.’

Launching a petition on the subject, Lewis Iwu of the the Fair Education Alliance said May had ‘the right ambition, but the wrong policy.’

“Grammar schools select only a tiny proportion of children for the best education, leaving others with a second rate choice. Even with quotas, poorer children will have a harder job of getting into these schools. And for the overwhelming majority of children who don’t get in, the evidence is clear that they get worse grades and a worse education.”

This morning’s speech was a hugely significant one for the prime minister, in which she set out her stall and attached policies to her early promises of greater equality of attainment.

Lifting the ban on grammars is May’s first major policy proposal, and looks set to become her first major defeat as well.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follower her on Twitter.

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7 Responses to “‘Ludicrous’, ‘divisive’, ‘a return to the 1950s’ – critics slam May’s grammar school plans”

  1. Michael WALKER

    If it was not for Grammar schools, it is likely Labour would have a different leader as the current Leader was educated at a grammar school.

  2. Michael

    The problem is, and I speak as a Grammar School boy, with two Secondary Modern Brothers, you can’t have a Grammar School without three of four secondary moderns to go with them

  3. Mike Stallard

    Do you really think that the 11+ will be brought back in every Primary School within a county? Do you really think that Academies which are now not in the County system will play this game?
    Free schools are free to select whoever they like. That was quickly squashed by the government, I can tell you!
    This idea has got no teeth and it will fail: more pretence, less achievement.

  4. CR

    I’d like to see Grammar Schools brought back, together with Technical High Schools as originally planned back in the 1944 Education Act.

    Let’s remove the need for private education all together by having a really good State system that is respected by the general public unlike our current ‘bog-standard’ Comps.

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    I notice the plans have been opposed by the University of Oxford and Kings College in London – two of the most selective educational establishments in the country. Perhaps someone should ask them when they intend to abandom their own entrance requirements. Especially as Kings also runs one of the most selective sixth form colleges in the country.

  6. David Lindsay

    The worst fate that can befall a satirist is to be taken entirely seriously. Michael Young wrote The Rise of The Meritocracy, after having been warned that no good would come of a Latin-Greek hybrid word. His targets took him entirely seriously, and they have been doing so ever since. His dystopia was, and is, their utopia, in which those with material wealth and paper qualifications determine “merit” on the basis of material wealth and paper qualifications. Clearly, they include, not only his son, but now even the Prime Minister.

    If you really believed in academic selection, then you would see concentration on poor areas, and quotas for the children of the poor even within those areas, as a complete missing of the point. But you would see absolutely nothing wrong in favouring the beneficiaries of extracurricular tuition. From that point of view, if they knew more about what was on the exam, and if they therefore did better at it, then that is exactly as these things ought to be.

    There is talk of using, not even an academic examination, but an IQ test. I have never taken an IQ test in my life. I question whether anyone who sets any store by them is sufficiently intelligent to be allowed out alone, if at all. For example, Boris Johnson. The whole thing depends on “mental age”, whatever that may be. The IQ of children in numerous countries has “improved” dramatically over the years when IQ tests have been set, and therefore taught to, in schools. Indeed, that never fails to happen.

    The publications of Mensa are a particularly rich seam of amusement. “More people than you might think are above average”? I’m guessing about half of them. “One person in 20 is in the top five per cent”? You don’t say! And so on. But never try and tell the “I have a high IQ” lot any of this. You wouldn’t have to, and indeed you never could, do anything to get a high IQ, even if such a thing really existed. Having it would be no cause for congratulation, still less for self-congratulation or for the creation of an international society for mutual congratulation.

    Never mind for the creation and maintenance, at public expense, of an entire network of highly prestigious schools for those who were deemed to have been born with this imaginary attribute.

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    His dystopia was, and is, their utopia, in which those with material wealth and paper qualifications determine “merit” on the basis of material wealth and paper qualifications.

    That is the exact opposite of Michael Youngs point. His point was that if position in society is determined by native ability, and all environmental influences are factored out, then your position in society will be determined by how fortunate you are in your genes.

    Since nothing is more hereditary than DNA, if follows that social class in a meritocracy will in large part be hereditary. It wouldn’t be as hereditary as in his vision, though, as sometimes the luck of the draw will give someone an IQ several standard deviations higher or lower than the average of their parents.

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