Theresa Mays grammar schools plan faces cross-party backlash

Theresa May has been warned she will face stiff opposition to plans for new grammar schools from some senior Tory MPs as well as Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The prime minister was facing a backlash after the Sunday Telegraph reported that she will announce a return to more selective schools in England as early as the Conservatives’ autumn conference.

Downing Street made no attempt to dampen speculation that an extension of selection in schools is on the government’s agenda, releasing a statement on Sunday that said: “The prime minister has been clear that we need to build a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.

Social mobility doesn’t exist – and grammar schools are part of the problem
Lola Okolosie
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“Every child should be allowed to rise as far as their talents will take them and birth should never be a barrier. Policies on education will be set out in due course.”

The suggestion that May, a former grammar school pupil, will opt for new selective schools after an 18-year ban delighted many Conservative backbenchers. More than 100 Tory MPs are said to support a campaign by ConservativeVoice, a group endorsed by senior cabinet ministers Liam Fox and David Davis in 2012.

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However, critics of grammar schools immediately rejected the idea that they encourage social mobility, with the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, accusing the prime minister of “harking back to a mythical ‘golden age’”.

“Selection belongs in the dustbin of history and has no place in modern society. There must be no going back,” she said.

A number of senior Tories have also told the Guardian there would be substantial resistance among modernising Conservatives to any attempt to return to a full-on selective school system that divides children at the age of 11.

One senior Conservative said: “The prime minister is fond of saying no silver bullet on immigration – it is clear to many of us that grammar schools are not a silver bullet on social mobility.”

Another MP said there would be organised opposition among many of the modernisers loyal to David Cameron who were consigned to the backbench by May.

Cameron held out against grammar schools, apart from approving the extension of one to a new campus in Kent, saying in 2007 that the debate was “pointless” and arguing that “parents fundamentally don’t want their children divided into sheep and goats at the age of 11”. He also said those calling for grammar schools were “splashing around in the shallow end of the educational debate”.

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Ryan Shorthouse, the director of the Bright Blue thinktank for Conservative modernisers, said a move back towards grammar education would be a mistake.

“Some individuals from modest backgrounds have benefited from a grammar school education,” he said. “But policymakers need to look at the aggregate effects: poorer kids from selective areas do worse on average than their peers in non-selective areas. They are not engines of social mobility. The motivation for lifting the ban on new grammar schools would be political positioning, not the evidence.”

The Sutton Trust has found that only 3% of children at grammar schools were on free school lunches, compared with 20% across the country, undermining the argument that they help social mobility.

Given the controversy a return to grammars would cause, some believe May could opt to allow them to grow in some areas where they still exist or permit selection in new free schools, without changing the whole system across England.

Mark Pritchard, Conservative MP for The Wrekin, suggested that “perhaps a compromise on grammar schools is to allow existing grammar schools to expand, but not necessarily allow completely new schools”.

The prime minister has a lead over Labour in opinion polls but commands a majority of just 12 in the House of Commons, while she has no Conservative majority in the House of Lords.

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