Democracy, not meritocracy
What lies behind Theresa May’s grammar school wheeze? Charlotte Black says it has nothing to do with equality of opportunity
Theresa May’s announcement last week that she would lift the ban on grammar schools can in some ways be seen as a continuation of Michael Gove’s policy on faith schools or Tony Blair’s turn to academisation. In essence, what she is doing is bringing a further element of selective education back into the state school system. But why? To whom is this announcement designed to appeal? One assumes the older Tory rank and file. We can imagine May looking back with nostalgia at her own grammar school background. Her rose-clouded vision fondly remembering her younger self with a combination of natural ability and steely determination. Given the opportunity through her new ‘inclusive’ grammar school, Ms May will make sure that your grandchildren, too, could become prime minister. That, after all, is “social mobility” and “meritocracy” exemplified.
Of course, what this vision of the past fails to take into account are the social and economic factors in play during the post-war heyday of the grammar and secondary modern schools (the latter till the mid-60s). In this period there was a rapidly expanding and rapidly changing economy, full employment, etc. By the late 60s, however, more working class people did go on to university (with full maintenance grants). Economic changes have seen massive differences in the nature of employment, while political movements have seen shifts in gender roles.
Theresa May’s rationale for bringing back selection is sold on the basis not only of meritocracy and social mobility, but equality of opportunity. Quite correctly, she explains that there is an element of selection already, as parents who can afford to buy property in the catchment area of ‘good’ schools are effectively buying their way into the upper tiers of state education. Rightly, she infers that this is unfair and has no link to students’ academic ability. However, while existing grammar schools are largely based in Kent, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire, extending them throughout England would hardly provide equal opportunities.
On average only around three percent of grammar school students receive free school meals (one of the key indicators of social deprivation), compared with the national average of 15%. If we look at inner-city figures, the ratio is much higher (33% in Hackney and 41.6% in Tower Hamlets, to give two east London examples). Where poverty levels are higher, students do not have access to the levels of support available to their middle class counterparts. Not to mention the fact that a higher proportion of people in deprived areas are more likely to have other priorities and responsibilities as carers, especially in areas where there are higher rates of substance abuse, etc.
Meanwhile, in suburbia, the more affluent parents are forking out for private tutors in maths, English and science (a maths teacher friend of mine tells me he charges £40 an hour - and that is apparently cheap). Likewise some unfortunate kids are having their summer freedom ruined to cram for mock standard assessment tests (SATs), doubtlessly costing an arm and a leg. The notion that it is simply a matter of merit well and truly falls down.
Once the 20% who have passed the new 11+ are siphoned off, what becomes of the rest? Your fate is sealed. Do we go back to the days of secondary modern, where the boys are trained to do metalwork and the girls for secretaries? This disdainful attitude towards the potential of young people is appalling. The notion that limiting educational opportunities for swathes of the population is in any way progressive is farcical.
So, other than the ‘Tory grandma’, who intersperses reminiscing about the grand old days of the British empire with the occasional rant about bringing back hanging, who else is supporting the spread of the grammar school? Theresa May will have a fight on her hands with the unions. The National Union of Teachers will take her on, while the slightly smaller NASUWT and the head teachers’ association will oppose it, albeit with less militancy.
NUT general secretary Kevin Courtney commented: “This is a backward-looking policy. Promoting grammar schools as the elite academic option instantly casts all other schools into the role of supporting actor.” Meanwhile Labour’s shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, suggested the Tories’ catchphrase ought to be “Segregation, segregation, segregation”.1 In addition, education professionals will, by and large, not support her move. May is unlikely to win many friends in the sector.
Perhaps more significantly, a section of her own parliamentary party oppose the whole trajectory. David Cameron, one of the few most recent Tory PMs to have gone to private school rather than grammar school, was opposed to their reintroduction. In his words, “They’ve always been wrong”. Remember Cameron’s ‘compassionate Conservatism?’ All Notting Hill set, green credentials and gay marriage. For May, this potential policy is another assertion of her more traditional approach to leading the Tory Party. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan has come out against it - though, having been sacked by May, I do not suppose her loyalty to the current party leader is very high. In a social media post Morgan is quoted as saying:
I believe that an increase in pupil segregation on the basis of academic selection would be at best a distraction from crucial reforms to raise standards and narrow the attainment gap, and at worse risk actively undermining six years of progressive education reform.
The evidence is now incontrovertibly clear that a rigorous academic education does not need to be the preserve of the few.2
Another former education secretary, Ken Clarke, has made similar noises in opposition to the line of Theresa May and education secretary Justine Greening.
Another question facing May is, would the House of Lords support such a bill, given that her new policy did not feature in the Tory election manifesto? While we should not rely on any such bill failing to get through the Lords, it could be that May’s aim is to test the water by merely floating the idea right now. Let us see how it is received by pollsters and the media, with the possibility of including it in the next election manifesto, rather than trying to force it through the current parliament - a sort of market testing of her brand of leadership.
In other words grammar schools are not for this parliament, but for the next general election. With the Labour Party riven with civil war, May must be tempted, to say the very least, of going for an early general election. The fixed term parliament act might appear to be an insuperable barrier because it stipulates that the next general election shall be in 2020.
But May could shame the Labour Party into voting for an early general election and thus securing the necessary two thirds majority. After all Labour frontbenchers have been demanding an early election. All May needs to do is quote their words in six moths time and call them cowards if they refuse to lend her their votes. However, even if Labour’s instinct for survival clicks in, there is another option. The government tables a one clause bill saying “notwithstanding the Fixed Term Parliament’s Act 2011 the next election shall be held on x date.” The FTPA would remain in place, but be bypassed.3
So expect the Tories to go into the next election saying they intent to champion working class families and grammar schools. All in the name of establishing the Great Meritocracy. This is Theresa May’s Big Idea.
Of course, as communists we favour democracy not meritocracy, ie, minority rule. Interestingly. the word itself was coined in the 1950s by Labour politician and sociologist Michael Young. In his The rise of meritocracy, he talked of a society ruled by a narrowly defined elite. By contrast, as communists and consistent democrats we fight in the here and now for the best possible education for all young people. By that we mean genuine education - where students are encouraged to think and explore, be inquisitive and challenging and have the freedom to develop their interests and talents beyond the exam specifications.
I have a lasting memory of one of my secondary teachers telling our class that the school might as well be a prison - after all, that was where we were going to end up at the end of it! Of course, a few did - although others went on to become communists.
3. The Independent July 12 2016.