Today’s Sunday Telegraph reports that more than 100 Conservative MPs are expected to support a lifting of the ban on new grammar schools that this Government inherited from New Labour.
Apparently Conservative Voice, a campaigning vehicle set up by David Davis and Liam Fox in 2012, plans to restart its campaign on the issue next week. That both are now senior ministers won’t hurt.
But with a majority of just 12 there will need to be broad consensus for any change. This means that it is essential that grammar school campaigners make it clear that they are not simply calling for a revival of the old system.
It’s not that the old grammar schools were bad, quite the opposite, but that the previous order paid scant attention to the children who didn’t get into them.
The so-called ‘Tripartite’ system was supposed to sort pupils into academic, technical, and general streams – but precious few technical schools ever opened, and it ended up too often being a ‘best and the rest’ system instead.
In some respects it was another failure of the sort of central planning that was so in vogue at the time. It was entirely impractical for Whitehall to design schools to fit the full range of pupil needs, so instead it tried to sort children into a manageable three (in reality two).
Contrast this with the education reforms of recent decades. The academies revolution that Michael Gove inherited and accelerated, and the free schools movement he set up, is the very opposite of post-War centralisation.
Instead of trying to design in Whitehall a national system of schools, the Government is encouraging a system where teachers, parents, and other interested parties can build their schools to their own design. Rather than three types of school – or one, as per the lamentable comprehensive model – there can now be dozens, scores, or hundreds of different models.
Academic selection can fit much more equitably into this spectrum of specialisation than it ever did under the old model.
Not because the grammars themselves have greatly improved – although the fact that you can now sit the entrance exam at 11, 12, and 13 certainly makes them more accomodating – but because the rest of the school system is no longer an awkward afterthought.
Grammar schools will sit alongside alternatives for those who excel at music, languages, sports, or technical subjects. The Government should redouble its commitment to a world-class vocational curriculum, so that University Technical Colleges accrue the same prestige as a good grammar does.
This broad-spectrum approach will likely be essential to winning support for grammars, especially in light of the Prime Minister’s determination to build a Conservatism that works for the many and finally shake off the “nasty party” tag for good.
Because the strongest source of resistance to new schools – aside the pro-comprehensive ideologues in the ‘Blob’ – will be parents who fear the return of that make-or-break moment that could condemn their children to a second-rate education and all that follows it.
Grammar school was the making of me, and I am in no doubt as to the power of specialised schools to foster social mobility and help people fulfil their potential. But those who want them back must make certain that they care – and are seen to care – as much about the alternatives.
If the new grammar school campaign looks fixated on the past then it will lose, and will probably deserve to.