There is to be a new grammar school for the first time in 50 years. Or rather there isn’t, because the law says that there can’t be any, and the new school in Sevenoaks is actually an annexe of the Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge. Or rather there is, because even the dogs in the Kentish streets know that the new school really will be a new school. As the Times (£), which has the story, declares in its headline: “First new grammar in 50 years approved”. Stand by for judicial review, everyone.
This site supports academic selection – and so, it turns out, do lots of other people. As Damian Green, a Kent MP himself, wrote on this site, it was New Labour, no less, that allowed schools to develop specialisms. In his dry words, “this gave rise to the slightly perverse situation whereby the state would offer a school which could stretch you to the limit if you were good at sport, languages, or science…but forbade by law a school stretching you to the limit if you were just generally good at school.”
The principle of academic selection is, however, not the same as the practice of the eleven plus – or doesn’t have to be, anyway. A questionmark hovers over whether or not the test is the best means of unearthing academic ability, though no-one has yet discovered a better one that commands acceptance, and the perfect test does not exist (because perfect tests never do). It may give children from middle-class homes an advantage.
Furthermore, eleven is a young age at which to apply such a test. Even as staunch a defender of the grammar school system as Graham Brady has praised Conservatives in Wales on this site for seeking “a process leading to selection at 14 based on the preferences of the child and the parents, in the light of recommendations from teachers. This method of selection works well in Germany and elsewhere”. The proposal, he wrote, is “an interesting perspective on the best age to select”.
Michael Gove, educational hero of the radical right, blocked a similar Kentish application. And it is Nicky Morgan, a leadership aspirant from the Party’s centre-left, who has approved this one. But it would be a mistake to read too much into this role reversal. Gove was worried about judicial review, and believed that the scheme’s backers had bungled the terms of their application. They have got their ducks into a neater row this time, and Morgan knew well that there would be judicial review either way.
I detect no enthusiasm for new grammars at the Education Department, let alone for a nationwide return to the eleven plus system. Gove and Morgan have pinned their faith to academies, which don’t select on ability by means of the eleven plus, as the best means of raising standards. Downing Street will have been deeply involved in this decision, and it has presumably taken the view that the political consequences of not agreeing it were worse than those of doing so.
Most party members will cheer the decision; what Chris Woodhead called “the Blob” will boo it, and parents will doubtless divide either way. We ask instead: isn’t this all the wrong way round? Why should a decision about a selective school in Sevenoaks be made at a Ministerial desk in Whitehall? The Government has a localism policy: only yesterday, the Commons debated the Local Government and Devolution Bill. Letting local people decide what schools they want is a logical extension.