Given some recent headlines, and the emotions the issue tends to stir up, Justine Greening might have expected a grilling even from some on her own side as she took the the dispatch box yesterday afternoon.
The Education Secretary might have taken a little comfort from the surprise news that David Cameron had helped her out by announcing his resignation just in time to distract the media. As it turned out, though, she didn’t need a diversion after all.
Yes, the Labour benches were typically scornful of the Government’s proposed reforms – but then they’ve been scornful of just about every education reform in recent years.
More interesting was the response from Conservative MPs. It’s hardly a secret that some strongly oppose the idea of new grammar schools, or other forms of selective schooling, and a few have speculated openly about the prospect of defeating the proposals. Greening could have been walking into an ambush from her own side, but in the event she had a much more gentle reception.
By my count, of the 37 Conservatives who asked questions following her statement, the vast majority were welcoming of the new proposals.
Michael Gove, who laid so much radical groundwork in the Coalition years, praised “the clear moral purpose that runs through every word of her statement” and urged her to hold her ground against Labour “dogmatists”.
Several of those MPs whose constituencies already contain grammar schools – such as Conor Burns, Sir Edward Leigh and Victoria Atkins – cited their success and advised the Education Secretary to study their examples.
Others seemed attracted to the radicalism of the ideas put forward in recent days. William Wragg, “a comprehensive schoolboy”, commended Greening on “her bold new departure”, while Kwasi Kwarteng hailed the news as “a step in the right direction” before expressing his “frustration at the fact that so many of the objectors to this scheme are themselves the products of selective education”.
For all the hype about an open rebellion, only half a dozen MPs seemed willing to voice actively negative opinions of the plans. Anna Soubry declared that “there is no desire in my constituency for us to have selection.” Alex Shelbrooke and Michelle Donelan both expressed strong concern about stigma being attached to those who did not get into new selective schools. Keith Simpson, a grammar school boy himself, voiced “severe reservations”, warning that “if I had failed the 11-plus…I certainly would not be here today.” Ben Howlett challenged the Government’s premise for the proposals: “having conducted research on this issue and asked the Library, I have found no evidence, thus far, to suggest that social mobility is improved as a result of opening up new grammar schools.” Most bluntly, Jason McCartney chose to imply that the policy amounted to “selection and segregation”.
Each of those will trouble the Government, given its small majority – and there may well be others who are yet to show their hands. But really the debate surprised in its tone: of the remaining 31 Tory speakers, the vast majority engaged with the detail of the policy. Might local catchment areas be included, asked Theresa Villers, expressing some “anxiety” about the practicalities.
Steve Double and Simon Hoare, both from the South West, urged the Secretary of State to ensure rural schools were adequately funded. Oliver Dowden, Claire Perry and Matt Warman wanted more information about the way grammars would fit in with the existing landscape of faith schools, free schools, academies and others.
University Technical Colleges, transport costs, school leadership, STEM subjects and many other topics all came up. Even Nicky Morgan, who openly attacks the policy on Twitter, preferred to ask about practical steps to reach the poorest pupils. And while Ken Clarke objected “pretty fundamentally” to the plans for faith schools, on grammars he simply cautioned that “The devil lies in the detail.”
He is right, of course, but I suspect that Greening will be more than happy to discuss the details of how her plans will work as long as people might like. After all, once MPs are discussing the fine detail, that suggests they are buying into the broad sweep of the policy from the outset.
That isn’t to say the school reforms are home and dry. A Conservative rebellion could yet derail them, particularly if an issue develops in those devilish details or the opponents get organised, or both. But yesterday passed without any sign of a particularly co-ordinated rebellion on the topic. That in itself is a small victory.