Theresa May’s policy on grammar schools is a new phase in the class war

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.


4 thoughts on “Theresa May’s policy on grammar schools is a new phase in the class war”

  1. 1) May knows Brexit is not by any means going to be quick or simple (but, rather, as has often been pointed out) a long protracted (and, frankly, bitter) affair. The pressures upon May to “get on with it” and invoke Article 50 immediately, being voiced by the like of Whittingdale, are going to form the new fissure line within the Tories. The new policy on grammars, whilst certainly appealing to May’s own prejudices, inclinations and policy preferences, is in my view essentially a bone being thrown to the ‘Daily Mail’-reading Brexit Bunch pre-Autumn Conference to get them to chew on and take their minds off Brexit for the present/give May time at least until the end of the year. (My money is still on it being the best part of a YEAR until the UK invokes Article 50 (post-French and German national elections) and with Brexit in 2019 earliest (with a General Election as scheduled in 2020 to allow the electorate to endorse the ‘wonders’ May will have achieved (and by which time, I firmly believe, the Three Stooges of Boris the Clown, Fox and Davis will have self-destructed and be well out of the way)).

    2) Grammar schools were ALWAYS far, far more about selecting parents than pupils. The intellectual credentials of “the Eleven Plus” were always extremely dubious and the system did not, as you imply, simply consist of “grammars and secondary moderns”. Because it was clearly apparent by the late-50s/early-60s that there were many more “clever children from poor backgrounds” than could be crammed into grammar schools at 11 (a development which many grammar school teachers and, even more, parents certainly did NOT want), desperate attempts were made to meet this in various ways; bilateral schools (essentially secondary moderns with an “O” level grammar stream (but which, inevitably, continued to be seen as secondary mods. for “the sheep” while “the goats” continued to go to the “real” grammar schools)), transfers at 13, 15, 16 (although, strangely, such transfers always seemed to be “upwards” from secondary to grammar and any pupils who had peaked at 11 and became pretty mediocre pupils at grammars were rarely, if ever, transferred “down” to secondaries) and by expanding the number of places at Grant Maintained secondaries (former private grammars which could not survive in a genuinely open commercial market but which the tax payer was invited to keep afloat so as to achieve what the English education system has always had as one of its absolutely top priorities: preserving and strengthening the class system (NOT in a simple Procrustean “toffs/plebs” manner but, rather, by catering for the numerous subtle variations within the strata of society which (as opposed to the simplicities propagated by Marx and his followers) has always represented something more like a section of geological strata than a Battenberg cake!)

    3) THE pillar of secondary education which had been envisaged since the 1944 Act (and had been at the heart of the 1918 Fisher Education Act as well) but which, for cost reasons, was never fully implemented was that of skilled, technical vocational education (“Technical schools”). Instead of committing themselves to producing a highly skilled, fully trained, internationally productive workforce (with wages, differentials and promotion prospects to match), the de facto position became that of churning out millions of unskilled, barely educated young people at 15/16 (suitably topped up now and again with immigrant workers) and pushing the responsibility onto those employers who ran real apprenticeships instead. We are, however, assured that this problem is at last being addressed by the new initiative of University Technical Colleges, of which we now have a grand total of five in Yorkshire (with a population of 5.3 million (last census)). I am sure the parents in these areas (who cannot afford private education, of course) will now be overjoyed at having to wonder if their child at 11 will be proceeding to a grammar school, a UTC (at 14), an academy, a free school, an LEA-run non-academy or whatever else the government may come up with in the intervening coming years. “‘English state educational policy?’ – ‘dog’s breakfast’ hardly begins to do justice to the term!”

    1. Thanks for correcting me and filling in the gaps. The track record of politicians is dire, and there is no sign of that ending.

  2. From what I remember of the educational system in the 60s, the pass rate for the 11 plus was about 15%. It might have been higher in other areas, but even if it was double that, the political dangers must be staring most sensible Tories in the face.

    MP’s “surgeries” are going to be swamped by parents, whose children have failed the 11 plus and who will want to know why.

    “There must have be some mistake ” will be the usual complaint. It’s very easy to be for the 11 plus when little Chloe or Thomas has just passed but what about when they’ve failed it? And most will end up failing it just like they did in the 60’s.

    11 is way too young to separate children according to their aptitude and ability. It’s really such a stupid idea that a part of me wants the type of pushy parents who believe in the 11 plus to be subjected to the letters of failure that will inevitably result from its re-introduction!

    But not really! What is it with Tory politicians anyway? Should this have ever come to the top of their priority list? Should it even have been on their priority list?

    1. Well said. The “11+” is the most stupid way of segregating children which can be imagined (and, in reality, only really segregates children in terms of the socio-economic status of their parents!) (Educationalists in other countries with selection, e.g. Germany, are just a scathingly critical of such systems as critics in England, but the forces of inertia/reaction (e.g. politicians, parents etc.) are so strongly entrenched that the debate just goes on and on for ever.) This does NOT mean the “one size fits all” comprehensive system introduced from 1964 onwards (very much of it under Thatcher!) was correct. What is needed are (1) excellent teachers in all sectors (something the Tories have abjectly failed to produce (as teacher recruitment (and, even more, retention) figures full attest) and (2) “pathways” for children to develop their strengths and interests much more clearly at 14, whether this be in dedicated institutions (such as the new UTCs – the sole and only Tory innovation in education for which I have any time) or within large comprehensive institutions catering for 11-18. My preference would be for the former (along the model in the Netherlands), but, whichever route is chosen, vast investment is required and there is no conceivable way a Tory government is going to do that. May has thrown the whole grammar school pitch into the ring purely for two reasons: to distinguish herself clearly from Cameron (whom she has now managed to annihilate totally/drive out of public life for good) AND to divert the calls from the “Daily Mail” reading. Kipper-leaning forces in her own party whose rallying cry will increasingly become “Get on with it!” as the true complexity, huge potential cost and possibly catastrophic results of any such precipitate move becomes ever more apparent. May was very clever in declaring herself “IN” to the minimal possible extent which would still have kept her in a Cameron/Osborne government but, like the vast majority of Tories (after all, not known as “the Stupid Party” for nothing), but may well come totally undone as “Brexit means Brexit” becomes ever more a term of derision (already well under way) and she has to balance enormous forces in order to move forward. Giving the Right of her party the grammar school issue to play with is the equivalent of throwing a ball of wool towards a cat in the hope that it will forget its food bowel is empty for some time at least!

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