If Theresa May is serious about her misguided plans for new grammar schools (and her words in Saturday’s Daily Mail seem to suggest that she’s deadly serious) then she has a serious fight on her hands.
The Conservatives currently have a working Parliamentary majority of just seventeen. This means that in theory, they should be able to pass this policy into law with ease. However, this ignores several key points.
Firstly, although the expansion of grammar schools has long been a policy which works well to excite the base of the Conservative Party, it is not an issue which the Parliamentary Party universally agree upon. Several high-profile members of the Cameron administration (including the ex-PM himself) harbour serious doubts about the wisdom of allowing new grammar schools to open. It was for these reasons that David Cameron didn’t pursue the opening of new grammar schools whilst he was in Government. Former Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan criticised the government’s plans this week, saying: “I believe that an increase in pupil segregation on the basis of academic selection would be at best a distraction from crucial reforms to raise standards and narrow the attainment gap and at worst risk actively undermining six years of progressive education reform.” It is well known that this view is shared by Mrs Morgan’s predecessor as Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Both Morgan and Gove remain very influential amongst the modernising wing of the Conservative Parliamentary Party, and so don’t be surprised if they work to derail the Prime Minister’s plans. After all, both are still smarting after being sacked from the Cabinet in Theresa May’s July reshuffle.
Morgan’s reservations were echoed by Neil Carmichael, the head of the House of Commons Education Select Committee, who said that the grammar school policy could, “distract us from our fundamental task of improving social mobility.” With no fewer than five other Conservative MPs having already expressed reservations about the plans, and current Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening not appearing wild about the idea, the Government’s majority is suddenly beginning to look very slim indeed.
Add to this the fact that the introduction on new grammar schools was not a part of the Conservative Party’s 2015 General Election manifesto, and the prospect of the policy passing through Parliament begins to look even more improbable. The Salisbury Convention means that, as a general rule, the House of Lords do not oppose the passage of legislation which has been promised in a party’s winning election manifesto. However, opening new grammar schools was not promised in the Conservative election manifesto. UKIP were in fact the only party who campaigned upon a platform of opening new grammar schools. This means that the House of Lords have free rein to reject the bill. Seeing as the Conservative Party do not have a majority in the House of Lords, it is to be expected that Labour and Liberal Democrat peers would be successful in voting down the bill.
In addition, although opinion polls suggest that the public are in favour of new grammar schools being opened, there hardly seems to be public clamour for the policy. In his column in Sunday’s Observer, Andrew Rawnsley suggested that the polls were misleading and simply suggested high support for grammar schools because most people don’t know what grammar schools really are, and what more of them would actually mean. This seems to be a somewhat accurate analysis. Perhaps a more pertinent question would be to poll the electorate on their support for the return of Secondary Moderns, the hated institutions where those who didn’t get into a grammar school ended up. Although Theresa May has said that new grammar schools would not mean a return to Secondary Moderns, it is hard to see what else it could mean. When this becomes clear, it would be unsurprising to see poll numbers in support of new grammar schools fall rapidly.
Overall, this plan seems a complete waste of time for Theresa May and her Government. The chances of getting it through Parliament appear slim at best. Ultimately, if she really wants to open new grammar schools then she will need to call an early election to gain her own mandate for the plans. Yes, that early election that the Prime Minister keeps insisting she won’t be calling.
Alternatively, she could continue governing and aim for some actual reform rather than a rehashed policy aimed purely at appeasing the Conservative Party base.