Which party is tackling the injustice of grammar schools? None has the guts

Fiona Millar
Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty

Whatever the outcome of the general election, one group of heads will have every reason to be content. The leaders of England’s 163 grammar schools have made it through another campaign with barely a word uttered about the bastions of privilege over which they preside.

How different from 2017, when Theresa May’s retro idea to create new grammar schools ensured that the arguments for selection (slim) and against (substantial) were rehearsed frequently and loudly.

In the end, the hung parliament meant any thought of trying to implement such a contentious pledge was quickly abandoned. However, the relentless focus on grammar schools’ advantaged intakes meant the government offered more money – £50m this year – for them to expand in return for a promise of widening access to disadvantaged children.

Related: ‘Tutor-proof’ 11-plus professor admits grammar school test doesn’t work

This tinkering around the edges has gone on under the political radar and has left us with the worst of all worlds. Grammar schools sail on, expanding stealthily but with little evidence that access will shift significantly. Currently just 3% of the children they educate are eligible for free school meals, against a national average of 13% in other state schools.

And the way they are being permitted to develop is alarming. After a long campaign from parents in Kent, one of the most divisive selective authorities, a girls’ grammar school was given permission to expand in 2015 using a so-called satellite school, nine miles from its supposed home base.

Many concerns were raised at the time about where this policy of creating school “annexes” might end. Lo, they have come to pass. Even though campaigners were told that the original school and its satellite would function as one institution, it has emerged that they will in effect be separate schools.

Inevitably Kent county council is pushing on and planning three more satellite grammar schools – one of which could be 14 miles from its “owner”, another providing six forms of entry – which sounds suspiciously like a stand-alone school. At least one Conservative candidate launched his general election manifesto with a pledge to try and get a new grammar school in his non-selective constituency.

Related: Dear Theresa May, here’s what grammar schools did to my family | John O’Farrell

The implications of this drift are clear for other parts of the country. There are 15 fully selective authorities where the 11-plus is a fact of life, and individual grammar schools in a further 10 council areas. Existing fully comprehensive schools could find themselves seriously threatened if the overall selective school population rises in satellite schools miles away from their base, unless someone has the guts to stop this.

You might have thought a general election would provide an opportunity to make a stand. Yet, however radical opposition parties might be on other issues, when it comes to selection ambiguity is the preferred option.

Abolition of selective tests is nowhere to be seen. Even the Green party seems to have dropped this idea. Labour has chosen to prioritise the issue of private education and kicked the grammar issue into the long grass of a future social justice commission. Only the Liberal Democrats have promised to halt grammar school expansion.

Both Labour and the Lib Dems are promising to take school admissions and school place planning back into local authority control. This is welcome but would make little difference in a fully selective area if the relevant council were committed to the 11-plus, as local determination could still trump national policy.

Education policy in the post-referendum era could at best be described as stagnant, at worst regressive. In the area of grammar schools, the drift back to a 1950s model of schooling might be a suitable handmaiden to Brexit, but it is one we should deplore and resist.