Theresa May is right to back academic selection in schools – as long as we don't return to the rigid grammar system of the 1950s

Tom Welsh
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Kettering School
We don't want to return to the rigid system of the 1950s (Source: Getty)

The chattering classes often complain that debates about schools are dominated by anecdote, as if ordinary people’s experience of education is totally irrelevant.

So what if parents feel their local school is sub-standard? Who cares if most unskilled workers believe permitting more academic selection would give their children a better chance in life? Grammar schools are only good for the middle classes, the argument goes, so no one should be able to go to one. As ever, Labour is out of sync with the views of its traditional voters on this issue, calling Theresa May’s desire to reintroduce an “element of selection” into education tantamount to “social segregation”.

The standard of England’s schools has risen in recent years, particularly in London, and we have Michael Gove’s reforms of the last Parliament to thank for much of that. We’re finally breaking the back of the destructive argument that equality should trump the pursuit of excellence in education, which has done so much to harm the life chances of those whose parents cannot afford ultra-competitive private schools.

For all that progress, however, the reaction to May’s modest proposal to remove some of the restrictions on selective education in England shows there is much left to do. There is evidence a return to the grammar/secondary modern system of the fifties, so beloved of traditional Tories, would not be the engine of social mobility some expect it to be. But that isn’t what May is planning.

If she removes the ban on new selective schools being opened or existing ones expanding, the Prime Minister will be extending the principles of competition and freedom that drove Gove’s educational revolution, not crushing them. If the reforms are devised carefully, she will be giving parents more choice over the kind of education their children can have, not less.

There are useful debates to be had about how schools that select by ability choose those students – is 11 too early, should there be multiple entry points, what is the best way to measure ability, how can we incentivise schools to admit as many poorer students as possible? They will be best answered by the schools themselves, not politicians.

But the principle that some children will be better off in a more academically intensive environment is a good one and shouldn’t be discriminated against in law.