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 It is an out of date, ineffective approach.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.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.