Is Theresa May Turning Into Donald Trump?

10/03/2017 16:28 GMT | Updated 11/03/2018 09:12 GMT
Toby Melville / Reuters

Did you go to a grammar school? And if you did, did you get a good education?

If the answer to both those questions is Yes, you may very well have welcomed the government's pledge in the budget this week to make extra money available for new schools that will be allowed to choose their pupils according to academic ability.

So here's another question: Do you believe that encouraging the establishment of more grammar schools gives parents more choice about where to send their children to school? If your answer is Yes again, I fear you are sadly mistaken.

Because the whole point of selective schools is that it is not the parents who do the choosing. It's the schools. And that - as those of you with long memories will recall - is why grammar schools were abolished: too many parents were left angry and disappointed when their 11-year-old children were labelled 'failures' and shunted off to secondary modern schools.

It also explains, as Simon Jenkins pointed out in The Guardian, why even Margaret Thatcher, as education secretary in 1970, knew better than to halt the move away from selective schools. Tory voters did not like the idea of going back to a system in which their children risked being written off as 11-plus failures.

In a speech last September, Theresa May said: 'For far too many children in Britain, the chance they have in life is determined by where they live, or how much money their parents have.' That comes close to being an 'alternative fact' of Trumpist proportions. But just because she believes it to be true (Trump believes he won the biggest electoral victory since Ronald Reagan, and that Barack Obama bugged his phones, but that's not true either.)

Good schools that offer children good life chances do not exist only in leafy suburbs or where parents are able to pay for the privilege of a private education. Good schools exist wherever good, motivated teachers are given the resources they need to educate, encourage and inspire the children who come through their doors every morning. And there is no evidence whatsoever to back Mrs May's belief that selective schools offer bright children better chances in later life. It is dogma, pure and simple.

There is, however, plenty of evidence that providing government money to encourage more selective schools is an extravagant misuse of scarce resources. What possible sense can it make to allocate £320million for the establishment of 110 new free schools, some of which will be selective, and only £216million for the 20,000 existing state schools? (Declaration of interest: both my children were educated at a state comprehensive school.)

The budgets of mainstream schools are still being cut, year after year. According to a survey of 1,000 school staff in England published in January, 80% said their school either had made cutbacks or was planning to, a third said their schools were not replacing teachers who leave, and 14% said that teachers at their schools were being made redundant.

That is the current reality in the state system: fewer teachers, fewer support staff, fewer books, and morale at rock bottom. Little wonder that this week the head teachers of more than a thousand schools have sent out letters to parents and MPs warning that their budgets are at breaking point.

In last year's budget, the then chancellor George Osborne - the one who is now being paid £650,000 a year to work one day a week at the asset manager BlackRock - announced that all schools would be forced to turn themselves into independently-run academies by 2020. Less than two months later, the idea was scrapped in the face of near-universal opposition.

Now, his successor, Philip Hammond, is in hot water over his proposal to increase national insurance contributions for the self-employed. So I have the perfect solution for him: scrap the NI increase, and fill the hole in the accounts by also scrapping the free school cash allocation.

That way, white van man will be happy and his children will have a better chance of getting a better education. Win-win - maybe I should drop a note to the chancellor.