My first thought, as with many others, was if the first thing that Theresa May wants to do as PM, which will consequently be the thing her “legacy” is built around, is to promote more Grammar Schools, then she can’t have much of a plan for her premiership.
In at least two ways this is unfair.
Firstly, I guess she knows that her premiership is going to be defined by Brexit. And the problem with Brexit is that it trumps any other policy area, in this sense. What is her industrial policy? Can’t work that out until we know the Brexit deal. What’s her economic strategy? Can’t work that out until we know the Brexit deal. What are her foreign policy imperatives? Can’t work that out until we know the Brexit deal. You get the picture? Most every policy area has the Brexit deal as a pre-requisite. One of the few areas that can be largely isolated from Brexit is education. So we have to recognise that education policy is now being dictated from Number 10.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, she recognises that there are few policy areas that have such a long term impact on a nation as education. Education is powerful. It has a lasting effect, for good or ill, on all who experience it. So a politician who knows every other avenue to make their mark is cordoned off will inevitably choose to concentrate on it.
So the question is how do those of us who oppose such a policy prevent it from happening?
I’m not going to waste your time going through the pros and cons. You can read. Anywhere you look at the moment you will find information about Grammar Schools. If you find any compelling evidence that the existence of Grammar Schools benefit the student cohort then please let me know. Otherwise I’m going to go with the flow and accept the evidence and input of every knowledgeable person I know of in education and recognise that Grammar Schools, taken in the round, represent a drag on the system, and consequently the national interest.
The problem is that this argument is not going to be won by deploying good arguments. It seems to me that Grammar supporters are the anti-vaxxers of the education world. They ignore the weight of evidence, concentrating on the crumbs that feed their own belief system, and they focus on the assumed benefits to their own child rather than thinking of their neighbours. For them, the needs of the one is really the only game in town.
We also have to be aware that when the question is polled there is a three way split. 25%-35% want the stars quo, 25%-35%want no Grammars at all and 25%-35% want some form of expansion. Depending on the particular poll and how you view these things this can be taken as support for either side. Currently the majority is for the status quo and no more. But only by a little. If you’ve studied the history you will know that any increased support for Grammars will likely evaporate if they are actually expanded, but for the moment we can’t assume that this policy will be deeply unpopular with the electorate, in particular the part of the electorate that May is aiming at, which, in my estimation, is UKIP.
Based on this analysis, we’re not going to change any minds in the short period we have.
So the approach will have to be to ensure that all those voices that are already against the expansion of Grammars are empowered to speak out against them, and, more importantly, are confident enough to vote against them.
As an aside, on this point I was a bit disappointed by Angela Rayner in the House of Commons this morning. The response she gave to the Secretary of State was a good one. This was the first time I hade listened to her at length and she did well. Until the last sentence. When she reached for the ‘nasty tories” label.
This is the position we are in. The first place this battle will be fought in the house of Commons. The government have a majority in the House. However, it is a small one. Whilst it is likely that many of the Ulster MPs will vote with the government on this it still only requires a handful of Tory MPs to vote their conscience on this matter to defeat any change. This is less likely if they are subject to abuse about their core values. It’s those values that lead them to accept the case against Grammars. So, please, no more abuse.
Also petitions are not the way to go. Reasoned letters to your local MP need to be high on the agenda here, whatever their political persuasion. They read them and there more of them there are the better fortified they will be if they are minded to vote against Grammar expansion. Of course, this is predicated on the MP engaging with the issue.
The second place this battle will be fought is in the House of Lords. There, still, argument and evidence perhaps hold more sway than the other place. Based on their approach to other social policy matters it is likely that there is currently no majority in the Lords to overturn the existing bar on new selective schools. This was not in the Tory manifesto so that issue can’t be forced through. Though I suspect that the government is currently working on the assumption that it will be returned with a new mandate and larger majority by 2020.
The third, and possibly most important place the battle will be fought is in the TV and radio studios. There are a few journalists who are extremely knowledgeable in this area who won’t have the wool pulled over their eyes (nor allow it to be pulled over the eyes of their audience) by the misguided (and sometimes mendacious) statistics deployed by those arguing in favour of change. But many ‘general’ interviewers are not steeped in the subject. They need ammunition. This is where the education experts have to raise their game a bit. The arguments against Grammars can be complex. They involve looking across all students and understanding issues of progress rather than raw attainment. Those arguments need to be reiterated time and again and the detailed information needs to be simplified so they can be more easily deployed in sound-bite form. Some might not like that approach, but we have to win this battle on the field it is actually going to be fought, not the one we want it to be fought on.
We must also rely on the media (broadcast and print) not making the same mistake they did with climate change. In this case impartiality does not mean accepting there are two equal sides to this argument. The overwhelming evidence weighs against the expansion of Grammars Schools. The media have a duty to reflect this.
In the past few days the phrase I have heard most often from education professional I’ve spoken to is, “I despair”. I understand that, I feel it myself. We can turn that around. We can use this overwhelming cohesion within the profession to support those we need to defeat this dreadful policy. This is a battle we can win.