After weeks of teasing, Theresa May has finally revealed her plan for the educational reforms. At first glance, it seems clever and full of good intentions: poor kids to get an education previously reserved for the richer, feeder primary schools and university ties to smooth out the remaining corners. But it is a bad set of policies that, whether now in a few years' time, will inevitably fail.
Some of the policies seem simply bizarre. No doubt there is a case for universities to establish links with schools, but having them fund schools seems more like a way of cutting the education budget on the sly, by effectively diverting some of the universities budget towards it. Expansion of faith schools is a terrible idea, in particular of faith free schools which, under no obligation to abide by the national curriculum, have been known to teach Creationism in place of evolution, and which frequently heavily privilege abstinence in their sex education. And then there is the centrepiece, the only policy which will garner any real attention: the reopening of grammar schools.
Opening grammar schools is like buying a show elephant. Those who are concerned by the ethics of it are initially outnumbered by those who like the theory of it, and you can satisfy your doubts about the purchase by dressing it up nicely and generously letting a few of the local disadvantaged kids have a ride on it for free. But you won't be able to hide the mountain of shit slowly accumulating behind it.
The ordure in this case is the schools where kids who failed the entrance exams at 11, 14 or 16 will end up. May has said that there will be no return to secondary moderns, but what does she imagine is the alternative? If there are grammar schools serving ¼ or ⅓ of the population, then there must be somewhere for the other ¾ or ⅔ of newly-designated human dross to attend. Even if they are not called secondary moderns, they will bear all the hallmarks of childhood disillusionment and material neglect that marred the schools of the 1950s.
And just like then, regardless of the poverty quotas, the secondary moderns will largely be populated by lower-income children. This is because cultural capital matters. A child who was read to in infancy receives a mental boost; a child whose well-educated parents can direct her or him towards intellectual pursuits is advantaged in the selection race; parents who can hire or a tutor or who have time to sit down themselves to help their children game entrance exams can be far surer of waving them off in a shiny blazer the following September than a single mother working multiple jobs to keep the family afloat. Modest poverty quotas will not be sufficient to solve these glaring disparities.
This neglect of the poor is not, however, the reason why May's grammar school proposals will fail. Her various concessions to social justice will probably help somewhat to mute criticisms on the issue of poverty, and some 60% of the population, according to a Sky poll, support the policy. Her proposals will fail, in fact, precisely because middle-class parents will feel that they offer too much to poorer children, at the expense of their own.
Despite the common association of comprehensivisation with the '60s Labour governments, it was a Conservative Minister of Education, Sir Edward Boyle, who first promoted conversion to comprehensives on the national scale (some progressive councils having established them in their own boroughs in the early 1950s). Another Conservative Education Secretary, one Margaret Thatcher, presided over the closure of more grammar schools than any other holder of the position. Grammar schools did, in other words, not fade almost out of existence because of any hand-wringing about the class imbalance in education. Rather, Conservative politicians agreed to scrap them because middle-class parents started tearfully haranguing them about the fact that their precious children had not got into the grammar school, meaning inevitably that educational stagnation, limited prospects, and social decline awaited them at the secondary modern. Grammar schools died because bourgeois parents could not bear that their offspring were not firmly ensconced in what they perceived as their rightful place at the grammar.
With this in mind, in terms of creating a palatable policy, May has tried to appease the wrong people: attempting to boost the opportunities of working-class children will not make many converts on the left, but will alienate those among the Tory faithful whose children, either because the sprogs are representative of the family's status or because they regard it as the birthright of middle-class kids, simply must qualify for the grammar school. If spaces are reserved for poorer children, then by implication a certain number of richer children who would otherwise have qualified for the grammar will be relegated to the increasingly secondary-modern-esque comprehensives, to their parents' lasting horror. As more and more middle-class parents feel the chill of their child's early educational failure, the clamour against grammar schools will once again become deafening. Not only, therefore, is the grammar school policy likely to disadvantage still further the majority of the poor; it will also harm just enough of the affluent to make its demise certain.
Despite all of this, one thing May said is incontrovertible and vitally important. A form of selection does currently exist through the postcode lottery which ensures that comprehensives in leafy suburbs consistently outperform those in inner cities. Clearly she is right that to that extent, the comprehensive system is not comprehensive. However, this is a problem that will be only be solved through greater economic equality through wealth redistribution, not through 'radical' schemes dreamt up by professional advisers who never done a day's teaching, indeed have not set foot in a school since they left Eton or Winchester in the 1990s. It certainly will not be solved through the reintroduction of an overt selection process. It does not seem likely that the Tory base will allow this plan to proceed anyway. Then again, Theresa May has surprised us all before. Perhaps she has an ace still hidden up her sleeve.