Could grammar schools be about to make a comeback? That Theresa May went to one, and that the number of grammar-school-educated members of the cabinet has increased from three to eight since she took over, has fuelled speculation about a shift in education policy.
There are various forms this could take. The least politically difficult would be for Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, to let England’s 164 grammar schools expand. Her predecessor, Nicky Morgan, approved an application by a selective girls’ school in Tonbridge to set up an annexe in Sevenoaks; it’s due to open next year. Greening could approve several more. The school in Sevenoaks has been described as England’s first new grammar in 50 years, but because it’s a branch of an older school it doesn’t run afoul of the 1998 School Standards and Frameworks Act, which prohibited the creation of any more selective schools. If May and her Education Secretary want more grammar-school places, this would be the easiest way to get them.
Alternatively, they could bite the bullet and introduce a new education bill. Could a Conservative government with a majority of 12 get that through Parliament? I’m not sure. One of Margaret Thatcher’s greatest regrets was that she didn’t save more grammar schools as education secretary from 1970 to 1974, but that wasn’t due to a lack of nerve on her part. Rather, it was because fighting a rear-guard action to preserve Britain’s two-tier public education system wasn’t regarded as a vote-winner by Conservatives at the time. An NOP poll in 1965 showed that half of Tory voters were in favour of comprehensives, partly due to fears that their own children wouldn’t get into selective schools. In a paper submitted to the shadow cabinet in the late 1960s, Edward Boyle wrote: ‘Far more Tories than we always realise have been genuinely worried about the implications of 11-plus selection for their children.’