Theresa May’s government could usher in new era of grammar school education

The new PM and her advisers represent the real possibility of a return to widespread selective secondary education

The likelihood of widespread selective education making a comeback has increased dramatically following Theresa May’s arrival in Downing Street.

While David Cameron’s government backed the creation of the country’s first new grammar school in around 50 years, his coalition and conservative administrations were extremely cynical about the selective system as a cure-all for education.

But the return of grammar schools across England is now a very real prospect.

TES understands that key figures in the new prime minister’s inner circle are keen to end the ban on grammar schools and could use the existing free schools policy to allow parents to open new selective secondaries.

One prominent player likely to press for the re-introduction of grammars is Nick Timothy, who is widely tipped to become Ms May’s chief of staff at Downing Street.

Mr Timothy worked for Ms May as a special adviser for five years before taking on a job heading up the free schools charity, the New Schools Network.

The 36-year-old – dubbed by some as “Theresa’s brain” – has been described as “absolutely pro-grammar” and will be instrumental in any plans to undo the ban on new grammars.

In November, Mr Timothy told the Sunday Telegraph that “where parents want some selective schools, I don’t really see why we have a fairly arbitrary rule saying they can’t open them”.

Mr Timothy’s support for grammars comes from his own personal experiences, and he has attributed his own education at a grammar school in Birmingham as having changed his own life chances.

It is believed that the government could look into changing free-school legislation to bring back grammars wherever there is parental demand, rather than ushering in the wholesale return of selective education.

Well-placed sources told TES that the government would need to re-introduce requirements that were removed on free-school applications to attract a certain number of parents to illustrate local demand.

“They could change the free school model but put in place tougher criteria to show there is enough support for such a school,” one source said.

Another insider added: “It would be a much savvier way of bringing grammars back than having to change the law or overturning ballots.”

But other policy experts have said that any such move would require the government to change the law banning new grammar schools brought in by Tony Blair’s government in 1997.

Any plans for new grammars are unlikely to be an immediate priority for the government, however, given the number of challenges elsewhere in government, not least the negotiation to leave the EU.

But onlookers have said that the likelihood of grammars making a comeback is far greater under Ms May than under her predecessor.

The prime minister was herself a vocal supporter of a grammar school setting up an “annexe” in her own Berkshire constituency of Maidenhead.

Proposals to usher in a new wave of grammars are likely to be strongly opposed by teachers and parents alike, however.

Comprehensive Future, a federation of local groups fighting existing selection, and its re-introduction through the “annexe” route, said it would fight any plans to bring back academic selection in secondary schools.

The group was a vocal opponent against the plans by the Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge to open a satellite school in Sevenoaks, nine miles away.

Melissa Benn, who is a member of Comprehensive Future and long time campaigner against selective education, said the move to grammars is likely to “intensify”.

“We have experienced the Cameron government’s ambivalence on this issue, and I fear that it will continue and intensify under Theresa May,” Ms Benn said.

“Nick Timothy’s support of grammar schools, plus his involvement in free schools, suggests that they may find new mechanisms for selection, trying very hard to avoid the charge of this benefitting the already well off, which they will struggle to do.”

By clearing out all of David Cameron’s allies in Cabinet, Ms May has also disposed of some of the most vocal Conservative voices in favour of comprehensive education. Both Michael Gove and David Cameron understood the strong arguments against the 11-plus.

Parents and teachers will be watching the education space with interest for any hint of a change in direction. If it happens, it could transform the schools system, possibly more radically than even Mr Gove could have imagined.

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