Grammars and Faith Schools: Theresa May’s Divisive Education Revolution

So there you have it. After weeks of positioning herself as different from her predecessor, Theresa May has provided her government with a decisive break. May could have shifted away from Cameron’s government on any number of issues - the “bedroom tax” or working tax credits - but she did not. Instead she called for an “education revolution” so Britain can become the "great meritocracy of the world."

There were some interesting points to the speech: the idea of universities sponsoring state-maintained schools is worth considering; for a Conservative to call for private schools to work harder to maintain their charitable tax status is pretty unusual. Under May’s plans those who are able will be compelled to set-up state-funded schools, or finance poorer students’ education. Many on the left would like to see private schools simply abolished. This is to dream. But charitable status gives them an unmerited advantage. Innocent until proven guilty is a purely legal concept. At least, private schools should surely be compelled to provide evidence of charitable activity before they attain such further privilege.

Despite this, May was convincing in her belief. She had a genuine, if very Tory, meritocratic message. There could have been an interesting debate between a decentralised vision and Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of a cradle-to-grave National Education Service.

Then she went and spoiled it all by saying something stupid about grammar schools and faith schools. Faith schools will be allowed to become 100% selective. There will be a reverse of the 1998 ban on academic selection. Effectively, she will bring back secondary moderns.

Grammars are not about choice they are about academic selection

The grammar school debate is one of the most tedious of modern politics. It is forty years since Tony Crossland promised to destroy every fucking one. It is also a fair amount of time since Margaret Thatcher abolished more than every other education secretary combined. But they just won’t die.

Moses could return from the very heights of Mount Horeb with a stone tablet, upon it chiseled divine proclamation that grammar schools do not work, and believers would remain steadfast. But it is worse. The facts are against them and still they stubbornly believe. At their peak, less than 2% of children from semi-skilled or manual backgrounds went on to higher education. Those few working class kids who did get into grammars did not succeed, in terms of exam result. Only 10% of the poorest children went to grammars. Therefore it defies reason to believe academic selection caused the great post-war, baby boomer social mobility.

Grammars are not about choice they are about academic selection. Theresa May has tried to alleviate this argument by proposing that they be required to open up non-selective state schools. This totally contradicts her assertion on no secondary moderns. What May is proposing is to divide education. What May is proposing will not help social mobility: that the 163 remaining grammars take far below the national average for free schools meals demonstrates their failure.

The prime minister is proposing a range of measures to ensure that selection does not favour middle-class children whose parents can afford to tutor them through the academic process. However, why use the failed past as the model for future policy?

Her belief in faith schools also appears to come from personal experience rather than evidence: May went to a Catholic independent school before winning a grammar school place. Faith schools currently make up roughly one third of state education. They admit far fewer pupil eligible for free school meals than national and regional averages. Non-faith state schools admit on average 5% more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Moreover, it has been found that greater selection means more poor families lose out.

The government has recognised that many parents do not wish their children to attend faith schools and that they lack diversity. Their solution is to cut off whatever diversity they currently have and segregate education. It reduces, not extends, choice. Britain is an increasingly pluralistic society. We need to become a cohesive society. Segregating education damages this. As a former home secretary she should appreciate this as an extremely damaging, maybe even dangerous, backwards step.

May's proposals made headlines but make education More unEqual

This is not about the past, May and Greening have said. Yet it is difficult to see it as anything but. It ignores the gross centralisation of free schools and the inequity of their funding. It does nothing about the fact that of OECD countries the UK still has a higher average student-teacher ratio. Addressing the 1922 committee she stated that the system has become “selection by postcode”, an admission that Britain languishes near the top of the OECD countries where parental background most affects educational attainment: a student whose parents are university educated is six times more likely to go on to university. May's proposals made headlines but make education more unequal.

She has sacked more ministers than her tiny parliamentary majority, including two former education secretaries. Nicky Morgan has already called the plans “weird”; Michael Gove, the left’s favourite bogey man, resisted the siren call of grammars in his four years in the job. The independent-minded MP Sarah Wollaston has claimed May's plans are regressive in their impact upon poorer children. It would be all very well it is were a fight worth having. May has chosen the worst of all world.

Education is an emotive issue. It will always be wrapped up in how policy makers, and voters, were educated. Good and bad childhood experiences affect how we make decisions as adults. Education, because it is about children, becomes doubly emotional.

May risks humiliation. Worse, it shows just how far we are from having a reasoned debate about improving education.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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