What is an ordinary working person? PM's grammar schools report has the answer | Larry Elliot

Larry Elliott Economics editor
Students at a grammar school. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

All politicians like to think they are in touch with ordinary working people. Harold Wilson teased the blue-blooded Alec Douglas-Home about his inability to connect with ordinary working people ahead of the 1964 election. Margaret Thatcher cited her policy of allowing council tenants to buy their homes as evidence that the Conservatives, not Labour, represented ordinary working people.

Theresa May has gone one step further. Up until now, there was no precise definition of what constituted an ordinary working person. An OWP was someone who played by the rules, put in a decent shift at work, tried to be self-reliant, was a striver not a shirker, but that was as far as it went.

Now we know – at least as far as the education system is concerned. The prime minister wants to make sure that the children of ordinary working people get a fair crack at getting a place at the new generation of grammar schools she is planning and has given Whitehall the task of coming up with a precise definition.

So what is an ordinary working person? The answer, provided in a 55-page consultation document, is that May’s target group are not children who are in care or whose parents receive benefits – who are eligible for free school meals and/or the pupil premium – but those who live in households where one or more adult is working but are bringing in less than median income. The consultation paper puts national median income – the 50% point in the distribution – at £20,000 a year.

That looks simple enough but actually it is a bit more complicated. The methodology used by officials uses a process known as equivalisation to adjust for the size and composition of a household. That means the raw income of a household defined as ordinary could be a lot higher than £20,000 – up to £33,000 in fact.

The other planned adjustment ignores the impact of housing costs, which means that people on modest incomes in areas with expensive property – such as London – would struggle to qualify as ordinary.

As a result, the government has managed to come up with a definition of ordinary working people that excludes the very poor but covers a third of children, most of whom will be living in the Conservative-voting constituencies rather than the Labour inner cities.

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