So grammar schools are back and their symbolism is proving to be potent for our Prime Minister. Theresa May has quickly sought to define her premiership as a new dawn for social mobility, evoking images of hard working people doing well, making good on their merits. Grammar schools have already proven her totemic calling card for ‘common sense’ Conservative values.
Theresa May, along with six other members of her Cabinet and key advisors, famously attended grammar schools. Crucially then, this policy provides a constant reminder of the differences between her and her predecessor. The entire grammar school debate is founded upon a notion of social mobility that intentionally cocks a snook at the dominance of those that formerly inhabited the playing fields of Eton.
It is an act of political manoeuvring that is less about improving our school system in any meaningful way (the model of inclusive grammar schools isn’t scalable) and more about announcing a changing of the guard. The caricature is set: gone are the silver-spoon swinging boys of Eton that swaggered in the offices of Downing Street and in come a new breed of earnest, serious Conservatives.
Every time the debate rages about grammar schools we will be implicitly reminded that the new leadership are grammar school success stories. Real, hard-working people made good. No unwarranted privilege here, thank you very much.
As Brexit was emblazoned with the slogan ‘take back control’, the implicit message of the incumbent Conservative party leadership is exactly that too. Gone are Cameron, Osbourne and Gove, with the new dawn trampling over their policies with no little glee. Unfortunately, it would appear that students, parents and us teachers will bear the brunt of an obsessive focus on relabeling schools and the inevitable upheaval that comes with it.
So, is the new message move over MATs, grammar schools are in town? In truth, I think the grammar school proposal will unwind into a third way of a spattering of partially selective schools, emblazoned with the prestigious label of a grammar school. Already, caveats such as the necessity to sponsor other non-selective academies are being mooted. The depressing potential of an admissions arms race faces us all.
The facts show that Theresa May and her cabinet confidantes are lucky survivors of a school system. Such schools clearly hampered social mobility, but that doesn’t really matter. The policy will serve its purpose in the next month, as it shapes a seemingly new era. Lost in the chip-paper of history, as ever, are the invisible thousands whose life opportunities were stunted by the 11+.
This is a policy of short-term persuasion and distraction. The truth of how it is enacted doesn’t matter so much. In a decade, there will be many angry voters who will feel misled by this halcyon vision of ‘inclusive grammar schools’, but that won’t matter either.
Parents and voters are being distracted from the very real issues that beset our schools. Budgets have been squeezed to breaking and a deeply flawed national funding formula only makes those problems worse. A still fractured school system that is yet to cohere into MATs and more will continue to struggle its way to find system-wide solutions. Most crucially, a recruitment crisis that threatens to undermine all of our schools, continues apace.
This grammar school policy, shorn of any semblance of supporting evidence, smacks of plain old political posturing and point-scoring. It may prove a quick victory for May in defining her political presence, but grammar schools will lose the much-heralded war on social mobility.