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by GK Strategy 15th September, 2016
3 min read

The Renaissance of Grammars

‘We have found a sensible system of dealing with a difficult problem and we will ensure that no grammar school has to fear anything… A school that fears a child entry because he or she does not appear at that moment to be bright enough or has a special need, cannot face with us the challenge of the 21st century.’ These words were said by David Blunkett in 1998, the year that all-selective schools were forbidden from opening anew under Tony Blair’s Government. 

While grammars in their oldest form can be traced back to the 16th century, the concept of the modern grammar came to fruition via the Education Act 1944, when secondary education after the age of 14 became free. Schools were divided into grammars, which had an academic focus and were geared towards children aiming to enter higher education, and secondary moderns, which concentrated on basic and vocational skills for those children that were expected to go into trades. A third type of school – the technical school – was also intended to complete the tripartite school system, but few of these were ever established. 

As the system bedded in, some began to fear that secondary moderns were suffering when compared with their academically superior neighbours. Local education authorities were devoting more resource to grammars, and the system seemed to some to be reinforcing class division as it became apparent that grammar schools were attracting a disproportionate number of children from more wealthy backgrounds. 

This point of view gained traction within the Labour Party, and although many grammar schools closed under Margaret Thatcher’s rule, an explicitly anti-grammar policy eventually materialised under Blair in 1998. Deemed to be dying out, and assumed by many never to make a return, grammar schools have not been the political hot potato in recent times that they once were.

But with Theresa May’s entry into the top job, grammars are suddenly back on the agenda. Whispers about their comeback began to surface soon after her appointment, given her well-publicized taste for them. Akin to many advocates of grammar schools, May attended one herself and emerged from the system with a strong sense that grammars allow social mobility to thrive (having come from a working class background herself). Also feeding the rumours around the return of grammars was the presence at her side of Nick Timothy, a long-standing close advisor to May and a fierce champion of the grammar.

While some suspected that the rhetoric around grammars might change, however, it did not seem so likely that the new Government would seek to make legislative alterations at this stage, particularly amidst the distractions of Brexit. There were questions, too, over new Secretary of State’s support for grammars, Justine Greening. While a choir of supporting voices for grammar schools exists within the Tory Party, many lean more towards Labour’s stance that grammars are socially regressive – Cameron among them. 

But lo and behold, the active expansion of grammar schools has been squarely slapped onto the menu for the British public this week with the publication of a green paper on the topic by the Department of Education. The paper proposes allocating £50m of new funding to back the expansion of existing grammar schools, and suggests that all state schools in England be able to select pupils by academic ability. In a move perhaps intended to demonstrate that the proposals do not merely represent a return to the old system (an argument pushed by Greening in Parliament in the face of cries from the Chamber), the paper also proposes that selective schools must have a quota of pupils from low-income backgrounds. 

 

For the policy’s many opponents, the suggested quota does not justify what is perceived to be a fundamentally backwards and outdated approach to education. Both Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron have rushed to denounce the idea, and there has been a suggestion of the proposals being blocked in the House of Lords. Nicky Morgan, the former Education Secretary, has come out against the development, calling it ‘at best a distraction from crucial reforms to raise standards and narrow the attainment gap’ and claiming that it would ‘at worst risk actively undermining six years of progressive education reform.’

So what lies ahead? While it remains to be seen what impact the expansion of grammars will have on English schools and those who attend them, we can perhaps learn some lessons from these early announcements in May’s term. As many suspected, Nick Timothy is no insignificant component of May’s team, and his own agenda may be worth taking note of for a sign of what is to come. Also confirmed is the anticipated centralised approach May is taking as PM, making decisions at a higher level and instructing the Cabinet in accord (as almost certainly happened in this case).

But finally, we have perhaps also learnt something a little more surprising about May’s decision-making process. While she is widely perceived as the pragmatic politician, only coming to a decision when all the evidence has been systematically assessed, her movement on grammars betrays the will to act on what could arguably be called an approach that is not evidence-based. While both sides of the debate on grammars will inevitably bring strong cases to the table, it is difficult to deny that there is little evidence to show that grammar schools really do promote social mobility. While May never made a secret of her own positive experience at a grammar, and her subsequent support for a system that incorporates such schools, some will be disappointed, and indeed genuinely surprised, that she has acted on this basis. We find ourselves waiting with baited breath to see what other policies emerge from the close-knit team at Number 10 – indeed, it is clear that any Brexit-related distractions will not stop May’s Government from pushing ahead with the domestic agenda. 

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