Opening more grammar schools is popular because it helps the talented, regardless of their background, get ahead. It is a meritocratic idea. The Tories, however, seem determined to turn it into an egalitarian one by forcing grammars to put certain social groups first. The result may turn out to be messy and counter-productive.
One Tory who called the 11-plus “unfair” was recently forced to defend the fact that he sends his own children to grammars.
The Government says that grammars must give priority to “ordinary working families”, as defined by a complex analysis of income. The mechanism by which grammars will do this is unclear, but implying positive discrimination casts education as a tool of social justice rather than individual improvement. The Left are already asking the inevitable questions. If the goal of education is to produce a more equal society, why not prioritise grammar places for children who receive free school meals rather than those with a steady income? Why support selection at all? After all, the evidence does suggest that the existing grammars contain many children from more affluent backgrounds.
Of course, the reason for this is obvious: there are so few places. When places at any good school are in short supply, middle-class parents compete for them by colonising an expensive catchment area and buying private tuition. The Prime Minister has spoken of “selection by house price”. The solution is not to regulate academic selection by bureaucratic fiat. The solution is to build as many grammar schools as the public wants, to let talent of any background excel and enrich society.
It would be a tragedy if the Government was to unveil a new generation of grammars only to shackle them to old-fashioned, comprehensive-style ideals. It is motivated in part by a fear of backbench rebellion: the Government has to keep anti-grammar MPs happy. One Tory who called the 11-plus “unfair”, Neil Carmichael, chairman of the education select committee, was recently forced to defend the fact that he sends his own children to grammars. He described the arrangement as “convenient”.
The Government needs to get tough with these rebels and not let them water a good policy down. It also needs to shrug off some of its own loyalty to social justice orthodoxy and embrace the facts of life. Grammars work precisely because they are so ruthlessly meritocratic. They should be unleashed, not muzzled.