The approval of the construction of the first ‘new’ grammar school in England in half a century is a long anticipated, but still controversial, decision by a Conservative government desperately trying to steer away from the narrative that it exists to serve society’s most privileged. It also presents an object lesson to the educational establishments with regards to the law of unintended consequences. Whilst many who are loathed to see grammar schools return to the fore cheered Michael Gove’s dismissal as Education Secretary last year, he would almost certainly have maintained his previous stance in opposition to any new grammars had he remained in his previous post. Instead, Gove’s departure and replacement by the more consensus-orientated Nicky Morgan has removed a major hurdle to the beginning of a process that has been a dream of the Conservative hard-right for decades.
However, as is often the case with such developments, the true story of the outcome of the battle to reinstate grammar schools is less spectacular than the headlines suggest. It still remains against the law to open additional publically funded selective schools in the UK as a result of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, and with only 164 grammar schools in England and a further 69 in Northern Ireland, scope for the ‘expansion’ of existing schools is still limited. More to the point, the decision to allow the Weald of Kent Grammar School to open an ‘annexe’ ten miles away is likely to be the subject of a legal challenge that the Department for Education’s own lawyers only give it a fifty per cent chance of surviving. The ten additional expansion schemes that have been submitted by other grammar schools will undoubtedly face similar obstacles.
For the most part, the greatest winner of the grammar school decision will be David Cameron. Although far from a fan of the concept – in 2007 he used the grammar school debate as an example of something the Conservatives had to move away from to be taken seriously – he does see them as a subject on which he can make concessions to placate his own MPs and the right-wing press. In February he carefully framed his backing for the expansion of existing grammar schools under the mantra that he supported “the right of all good schools to expand”. With that commitment and last week’s go-ahead from the Department for Education, he could deftly exploit the row to his advantage. Blame for the failure of the project from this point onwards will be pinned on others, and any calls to change the law should a judicial review rule against the Weald scheme will be rejected by Cameron, given that such legislation would be unlikely to survive the parliamentary process.
The broader national landscape does not favour a more general drift towards grammars either. Although a majority of the public in favour of bring back the grammars, this support is seems relatively soft. As relayed by Anthony Wells in his UK Polling Report blog:
“Back in February YouGov asked a question to two different samples. Half were asked if they’d like to bring back grammar schools across the whole of Great Britain – 53 per cent said yes, 20 per cent said no. The other half were asked if they’d like to bring back the system of an exam at 11, with 25 per cent of children who passed going to grammar schools and the other 75 per cent going to secondary moderns. Now 46 per cent of people supported it, 34 per cent of people were opposed.”
Even this data is misleading. A closer look at the survey results from the age group most likely to be either parents or soon to become parents – 25-39 year-olds – showed that they backed “reintroducing grammar schools” by 45-17 per cent, but opposed “reintroducing the selective system” and the 11-plus exam by 41-35 per cent. Putting aside for a moment that the inherent contradiction in such a stance adds to the list of long-term concerns about much of British public opinion, this result indicates that a genuine push to move back to the grammar system would quickly falter once the practicalities hit home.
So it would seem that whatever the froth with regards the expansion of a school that will only involve a few hundred pupils, wider hopes amongst those crusaders who believe that the answer to Britain’s education woes lies in the resurrection of a system that is ultimately built upon deciding where a child’s life should lead at the age of eleven are ill-founded. Fundamentally, grammar schools look likely to remain little more than a curious relic of a bye-gone era.