Will the Conservatives retreat into their grammar school comfort zone?
The news today that Nicky Morgan is due to approve a ‘new grammar school’ in Kent has led to predictable political reactions.
First a quick consideration of what is actually being discussed – effectively an extension of an existing grammar school site in Kent, rather than an actual new grammar school. But still, it is an important move as it has reawakened the obsession with a return to grammar schools which dominates large sections of the Conservative party.
The 1998 Education Act prohibits the creation of new taxpayer-funded grammar schools. While widely criticised then (and now) by the Tories, their opposition to this policy had been softened following the evangelical work of Michael Gove to develop the free school policy. Reduced to its simplest terms, the free schools project is based on the concept that standards can be lifted for all school children without the need for academic selection.
While Gove had many critics (perhaps more for his approach than his philosophy) this was a radical policy, informed by a vision of equal opportunity for all young people. The risk to this project now is that the Tory love of grammars is reawakened and what was a reasonably progressive education policy* could be lost.
As Chris Cook, then FT correspondent, now Newsnight policy editor once wrote:
There is an iron law in English education: as any given argument about any problem with schools progresses, the probability that someone will claim grammar schools are the solution rapidly tends towards 1.
The Nicky Morgan announcement has proved that rule once again, and already MPs and councillors are taking to social media to either support or criticise the role of grammar schools in social mobility, more or less along Tory/Labour lines.
As Chris has also demonstrated via that blog, the evidence suggests that grammar schools are not as effective as many people claim in addressing social mobility – but they are important in people’s identities, in terms of personal life stories, but also political identity.
Nicky Morgan is yet to really set out her stall as an education secretary. Is she continuity Gove, or is she prepared to set out her own vision for schools under a Conservative Government? Certainly she is facing renewed pressure this morning to consider reversing the 1998 Act’s ruling and revive grammar schools across England.
It seems unlikely that Cameron would undo the work of Gove in education – one of the few areas where his government can lay claim to genuine policy reform. Many people will remember that one of Cameron’s first real assertions of authority over the Conservatives parliamentary party came in 2007 when he faced down backbenchers over a return to grammar schools.
But Gove is now gone from the brief, as is one of the real intellectual architects of the policy, Dominic Cummings. Without their genuine reforming presence, will the Conservatives retreat into their grammar school comfort zone?
*from this writer’s perspective, while there is a lot to be praised in the free schools project, the way that it has misallocated capital funding and failed to address huge shortfalls in school places across the country is a terrible failing. I am also a parent and thus a vested interest…