Theresa May spoke for almost half an hour before she actually mentioned the ‘G’ word: Grammar schools. But before she did so, the Prime Minister repeatedly uttered another word nearly a dozen times: meritocracy. May said she wanted Britain to become ‘the great meritocracy of the world’ and she said schools were the place to kick start that change. Her speech was a sometimes-reheated version of her first Downing Street address, but her message was clear: this is a bold shake-up of Britain’s education system.
The PM said grammar schools would be encouraged to grow and she vowed as well to kick over the obstacles in the way of new grammar schools opening. Yet it seems May spent longer justifying her policy than actually clarifying it. Her £50m to help grammar schools expand each year will not go far at all. And she had no answers on the problem of making a fair admissions policy. After admitting ‘tutor-proof tests’ did not exist, she was washy on the crucial detail of how to prevent middle-class parents with sharper elbows and deeper pockets from pushing their kids to the front of the grammar school queue.
By saying, too, that she did not want a ‘cliff edge’ 11-plus exam, she also raised another question: how will her idea of allowing kids to go to grammar schools at 14 and 16 work in reality? Will that upheaval in kids’ education be a good thing? And is her claim that children from other schools could go to grammar schools for certain lessons actually practical? Theresa May would accuse those who ask these questions of failing to think outside the box – she said as much during her speech today in calling for people to ‘think differently’. Yet in proposing a shake-up, the Prime Minister must remember it’s her prerogative to answer these key questions.
While some of the policy details might be somewhat half-baked (which, in fairness, is probably due to the way in which this story emerged accidentally in the first place), one thing was clear: Theresa May is making a snatch for the middle ground. She touched on many issues that Labour tried without much joy to talk about under Ed Miliband’s doomed leadership. Whereas the then-Labour leader spoke of the ‘squeezed middle’, Theresa May is focusing her fire on the ‘just managing’ crowd. She indicated a shift away from focusing solely on the free school meal metric which she said ‘captures a relatively small number’ of the poorest. Instead, she talked about the ‘hidden disadvantaged’: children whose parents are on modest incomes but might not be on benefits.
But the Labour land grab didn’t stop there. Theresa May also called on private schools to offer more in the way of public benefit. In Labour’s 2015 manifesto, the party made exactly this point. This might be a bold education policy but the fingerprints of Labour are plain to see.