The announcement of Theresa May’s plans for new grammar schools has revived a decades-old debate about selective schooling in the British educational system, and the last few months have seen the issue rise to the top of the parliamentary agenda. The proposal is facing resistance from both Labour MPs and Conservative backbenchers, and has also drawn criticism from teachers and members of the educational establishment.
Theresa May – herself an ex grammar school student – has made the creation of new grammar schools a central part of her educational platform, and while the Conservative government had been making suggestions that grammar schools might be given leeway for expansion, May’s move has nevertheless come as a surprise to many. Indeed, while many saw the groundwork for this proposal laid when the Department for Education under Nicky Morgan allowed grammar schools to expand via “annexes”, it wasn’t until a photographer captured a picture of a consultation document on the subject in the hands of a civil servant that the press realised how far the plans had developed.
The 11+ examination came into force with the Tripartite System of Education in 1945, and was originally championed by the Labour government as a means of affording a higher standard of education to families from poorer backgrounds. In later years, however, Labour and the left distanced themselves from grammar schools, and their creation was eventually suspended under Tony Blair in 1997. At present, there are only 167 schools remaining in England that are permitted to select children by ability; it remains unknown how many new grammar schools might be introduced should May’s plans be successful.
The new grammar school system would see a minimum quota enforced for children from low-income households, and grammar schools and private schools in general will be forced to devote resources to helping state schools – rules that the government believes will help extend the benefits of grammar and private-school education to disadvantaged areas of society. However, Theresa May’s claims that grammar schools offer opportunities for social mobility and “meritocracy” have been met with scepticism from both Labour and Conservative MPs, and a number of studies seem to cast doubt on the notions underpinning May’s proposal. At the same time, grammar schools remain popular among parents, and, despite arguments that grammar schools favour wealthier students, there have been no suggestions on how brighter students from less well-off backgrounds might be assisted in a completely non-selective educational system. Likewise, private schools have largely been left alone throughout the debate, and calls for greater social equality in education have rarely extended to imposing a comprehensive-only system.
With Jeremy Corbyn vowing to defeat grammar school proposals, and mixed support from the Conservative party as a whole, there is every possibility that the bill might be defeated or only pass through parliament in a radically amended form. However, what remains clear is that the present government sees selection as a key component of its plans for British education, and whatever happens to the present proposal it seems unlikely that the issue of grammar schools will drop off the political radar any time soon.