Theresa May’s grammar schools revolution is set to be abruptly halted by the House of Lords after Labour and the Lib Dems vowed to fight the radical plans.
The Prime Minister unveiled details of her radical proposals on Friday, with fresh moves to force the best state and private schools to take in more “working class” children - and not just the poorest.
But Baroness Smith, Labour’s leader in the Lords, told HuffPost UK that the Tories would have to win a general election to get the mandate needed to pass the controversial proposals into law.
And Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron vowed that his party would never allow the Conservatives to tear up the comprehensive system by creaming off the high achieving pupils into new selective rivals.
May has a working Commons majority of just 17, but faces an even bigger obstacle in the Lords, where there is a clear anti-Tory majority of Labour, the Lib Dems and other peers.
One Lords source said: “On the face of what’s been announced today, these plans look like they will be dead on arrival in the Upper House”.
Baroness Smith suggested to HuffPost that because the 2015 Tory manifesto had no mention of the new-era grammars, peers won’t be bound by usual convention not to block the will of the Commons.
“If Theresa May is set on bringing back grammar schools, she needs both a political mandate and hard evidence that such selection has a significant and positive impact on improving education outcomes and social mobility.ADVERTISEMENT
“Any other approach, including trying to slip it in under the radar through secondary legislation, is completely unacceptable. It certainly won’t wash with our Peers.
“The two related debates in the Lords this week have already highlighted serious concerns.
“Any proposal from the Government to bring back selection across our education system will be strongly challenged from all corners of the House”.
Her words suggest that May will have to trigger a general election, and include her plans in a Tory manifesto, in order to meet the requirements of the Salisbury convention, under which the Lords normally do not oppose Government legislation.
And Farron told us his party - which has just 8 MPs but 105 peers - would be equally determined to uphold the legacy of former Education Secretary Shirley Williams, who created a new generation of comprehensive schools.
“The government need to know; going down this route will only bring bloody battles and inevitable defeat in the Lords. The Liberal Democrats are the party of education. We believe in a society that is open, tolerant and united.
“We will not sit idly by while the political consensus on grammar schools, created by Shirley Williams is unpicked by the Tories.”
Several Tory MPs were also already uneasy at the proposals, but May today insisted that her critics were aiming their fire at the old system of secondary moderns rather than her new plans for “a truly meritocratic Britain”.
She ruled out any ‘return to secondary moderns’ (the non-grammars of the past) and insisted her plans would not be “binary” for pupils because they would boost a mix of new schools with high standards.
And to head off the criticism of stigmatising children as ‘failures’ at an early age, she announced under her plans pupils would be able to enter grammars at 14, and 16, as well as 11 - with some allowed in for certain subjects.
The Prime Minister revealed that her proposals would benefit not just children on Free School Meals, whose parents earn less than £16,000 a year, but also those on low incomes not on any benefits at all.
New grammars would have to reserve a proportion of places for “the hidden disadvantaged: children whose parents are on modest incomes, who do not qualify for such benefits but who are, nevertheless, still only just getting by”.
She said that children of those earning up to £21,000 a year would be eligible for the new quota of places.
“If you’re earning nineteen, twenty, twenty one thousand pounds a year, you’re not rich. You’re not well off. And you should know you have our support too
“Policy has been skewed by the focus only on those in receipt of Free School Meals, when the reality is that there are thousands of children from ordinary working class families who are being let down by the lack of available good school places.”
Aides said further details would appear in consultation, including what would happen if when the number of low-income pupils who passed the new grammar tests failed to be enough to meet the quota set down.
May also singled out private schools for the first time, warning that they would possibly lose tens of thousands of pounds in their charitable status if they failed to meet new ‘public benefit’ tests.
Bigger independent schools like Eton or Harrow would be expected to either sponsor or create state sector schools or to fund a number of places at their own school “for those from modest backgrounds who cannot afford to pay the fees”.
In another radical policy shift, May also unveiled plans to allow faith schools to admit 100% of their pupils on grounds of religion, rather than the 50% at present.
But the PM also raised the prospect of “mono-racial” schools as part of her new education landscape, but insisted faith schools would have to twin with schools of different faiths or none, and possibly face new tests.
“We will encourage the grouping together of mono-racial and mono-religious schools within wider multi-racial and multi-religious trusts. This will make it easier for children from different backgrounds in more divided communities to mix between schools, while respecting religious differences.”