Chatterers on the left had a clear narrative on the class tensions running through British politics. The Conservatives were led by toffs, who went to elite private schools, had no idea about how ordinary people live, and feathered the nests of their rich friends. They shrugged as they heartlessly condemned people to food banks. The appointment of Theresa May as Prime Minister does not fit that narrative, and that will make the left uncomfortable.
Mrs May is not one of the toffs. She went to a state school, and she has promoted others who were similarly state-educated, such as Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary. She has tossed out many of the toffish types, such as George Osborne, who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer and Oliver Letwin, in charge of the Cabinet Office. At first this drew some positive comments, to the effect that Mrs May was more “grounded”. That honeymoon is now over. Mrs May wants to bring back grammar schools.
At face value, this is a throwback to the 1950s. The brightest children were selected by exam (the 11 plus) and sent to grammar schools, while the rest were sent to secondary moderns. The grammar schools were treated as the elite of the state system, and got the best teachers, and were run with an ethos close to private schools, for whom selection was at the core of their being. The grammars were the route to advancement for many a working class or lower middle class boy or girl – thanks in large part to the vast expansion of middle class jobs in the era. They were sold as an engine of social mobility, and quite popular right across the class spectrum, though the toffs trended to sneer at them. Secondary moderns, by contrast, were neglected. The powers that be did not consider that most people needed a good education – there were plenty of lower-skilled working class jobs to go round, and even the more skilled ones did not require much formal education.
There were plenty of weaknesses in this system, which was especially hard on late-developing children. The secondary moderns were inadequate for the way in which society was developing – which required ever increasing levels literacy and numeracy, to say nothing of other disciplines. In the 1960s the Labour government drove through a move to merge the two types of school into comprehensive schools. This had broad, cross-party support. Grammars were not so popular with those that did not get into them. But people taught at grammar schools retained a soft spot for them, and they remained popular with what might be called the aspirant classes. The system lived on in a number of areas, such as Kent. The middle classes, however, increasingly understood how to game the system, so that the remaining grammars lost any aspirant working class character they might have had, and became a sort of state substitute for private schools.
Conservatives did not reverse the Labour move away from grammars, though they did experiment with selective admissions for some schools. But the grammar school system retained support amongst middle-class families who disapproved of comprehensive schools, and those who were nostalgic for the 1950s. A recent poll showed that more of the public favour more grammar schools than those who either want the system to stay the same, or who want to abolish all grammar schools. It did not help that the country’s school leaders and teachers were ill-prepared for the move to comprehensives, and, in general, made a hash of it. A new ethos is required to make a non-selective schools work. British educationalists have only learnt slowly how to do this – though by and large they are doing a good job now. But public memories are seldom up to date. And in any case the suburban middle classes are very wary of social mixing.
And into this situation has stepped Mrs May, whose secondary school was a grammar that converted to a comprehensive while she was there. She has picked up on the popularity of grammars across swathes of the middle class and now wants to increase their number, to the horror of the educational establishment. She does this amid much rhetoric about meritocracy, and insisting that, somehow, all schools will be good. As a (Labour) friend of mine recently remarked, this is a bit like Jeremy Corbyn saying that he is going to pay for his extravagant spending plans by making the economy grow faster. The fine words cover emptiness.
As a policy idea, grammars make no sense to me – I agree with Michael Wilshaw, the government’s outgoing Chief Inspector of Schools on this. But the politics is interesting. We find the politicians characterised by the left as “toffs” were quite close to the metropolitan middle classes that are the backbone of the left – some of whom have rather toffish backgrounds themselves (disclosure: I went tot he same school as Mr Osborne, though not at the same time). Mrs May is speaking for what I will call the suburban middle class, who are much more conservative. If the toffs are The Times and the metropolitan middle class are The Guardian, Mrs May is speaking for The Daily Mail. Her gender merely reinforces the stereotype: the Mail has a strong female readership.
This is going to harder for the left. The toffs were a small minority, and the left could pile on the sneers with little cost. Alas the suburban middle classes are a wholly different matter. They are numerous, and they are often close in attitudes to aspirant or better-off working classes. The sneers will come at a political cost.
Indeed this group of middle class and working class voters are critical electorally. Whichever political party secures their loyalty is practically guaranteed a close grip on power. Margaret Thatcher made them her own in the 1980s for the Tories. So did Tony Blair for Labour in 1997. The desertion of these voters in Lib Dem seats in the 2015 election proved catastrophic for the party.
So this looks like sound political strategy by Mrs May. The left – Labour and the Lib Dems -will have to work out how to craft an appeal to these voters. Opposition to grammars, which both parties must sustain. won’t help, though some lines of attack are better than others. They need to find ways of pointing out that they could damage many existing schools, knocking onto property prices and causing an influx of less desirable children…
Mrs May will be more worried about opposition from the metropolitan middle classes in her own party than anything from the left. Class could yet fracture the Tories.