Since being appointed Education Secretary, Damian Hinds has kept a low profile. Yet today’s newslinks feature not one but two important stories from his department.
First, he has announced that the Government will spend £50 million creating up to 16,000 new places at existing grammar schools. Second, he is giving a green light to the creation of more so-called ‘voluntary aided’ faith schools, set up in partnership between religious groups and local councils.
These moves tell us much about the state of Theresa May’s schools agenda – and David Cameron’s, for that matter.
On grammar schools, this is a reasonable move. The Government doesn’t have either the political capital or a parliamentary majority for lifting the Blair-era ban on new grammars, so funding this sort of expansion – which includes so-called ‘spin-off sites’ – is about as far as Hinds can go.
The faith schools announcement, on the other hand, is harder to explain, as it flies in the face of a manifesto commitment to “replace the unfair and ineffective inclusivity rules that prevent the establishment of new Roman Catholic schools”. The BBC highlights the fact that Hinds has backed away from making it easier to open religious free schools.
This is a significant development. Whilst voluntary aided schools do get to take up to 100 per cent of their intake from a given faith, the council partnership gives them much less independence than a free school. This move will help the Catholic Church create more schools – albeit having to stump up for a share of the costs – but it is the cautious, low-innovation approach, which is surprising given Hinds’ strong support for faith schools.
It adds further weight to evidence that Gove’s legacy – and thus, Cameron’s – is in peril, following news this week that not a single new free school led by parents or community groups had opened in 2017-18.
None of his successors have evinced even a healthy share of Gove’s zeal for reforming this crucial sector, but whilst this isn’t the article to remake wholesale the case for free schools it does have a direct bearing on the Government’s grammar school position.
As I wrote in 2016, one of the reasons that deep-seated objections to grammar schools remains is memories of the system in which they operated, which saw academic students thrive in specialist schools but the rest let down by catch-all secondary moderns.
Reviving grammar schools was much more defensible when it was part of a Conservative education offer which was built around a ‘spectrum of specialisation’: recognising that there are lots of different sorts of learners, of which academically strong pupils are just one, and letting the system create schools that catered to each.
Absent that context, the ‘best-and-the-rest’ concerns which have plagued earlier efforts to revive grammars will persist, and ineffective sops such as lower exam standards for poorer pupils (which often do those pupils no favours if they are simply not prepared for the academic environment inside the school) will not assuage them.