THERESA MAY has set out plans for a new generation of selective grammar schools, as part of a drive to make Britain “the great meritocracy of the world”.
The Prime Minister was accused of “putting the clock back” by chief schools inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, who warned that a return to grammars would halt momentum towards better results in the state system.
But in her first major policy speech since becoming PM, Mrs May insisted that there will be “no return to secondary moderns” - the so-called sink schools of the pre-comprehensive 1970s which were blamed for consigning the majority of children to academic failure.
Instead, she said her reforms were designed to provide “a good school place for every child and one that caters for their individual needs”.
And she set out a series of measures intended to ensure that new and expanded grammars make places available to children from disadvantaged backgrounds and help improve standards in non-selective schools. This could involve taking a proportion of pupils from lower-income background or opening a “feeder” primary school in disadvantaged areas.
“This is not a proposal to go back to a binary model of grammars and secondary moderns, but to build on our increasingly diverse schools system,” said the PM in her speech at the British Academy in London.
“It is not a proposal to go back to the 1950s, but to look to the future, and that future I believe is an exciting one.
“It is a future in which every child should have access to a good school place. And a future in which Britain’s education system shifts decisively to support ordinary working class families.”
Mrs May confirmed that she wants to relax restrictions - maintained by her predecessor David Cameron - which prevent the creation of new selective schools, the expansion of existing ones or the conversion of non-selective schools into grammars. It was “completely illogical to make it illegal to open good new schools”, she said.
The Government will provide £50 million a year to support the expansion of existing grammars, she announced.
She confirmed that she will lift restrictions requiring oversubscribed faith schools to make 50% of places available to children from other religious communities.
And she said that independent schools will face tougher test of public benefit in order to maintain their charitable status, while insisting there was no question of “abolishing or demolishing them”.
Meanwhile, universities will be required to take action to support attainment in the state system, by sponsoring a state school or setting up a new free school
“Politicians - many of whom benefited from the very kind of education they now seek to deny to others - have for years put their own dogma and ideology before the interests and concerns of ordinary people,” said Mrs May.
“For we know that grammar schools are hugely popular with parents. We know they are good for the pupils that attend them. Indeed, the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils is reduced to almost zero for children in selective schools. And we know that they want to expand ...
“We help no one - not least those who can’t afford to move house or pay for a private education - by saying to parents who want a selective education for their child that we won’t let them have it.
“There is nothing meritocratic about standing in the way of giving our most academically gifted children the specialist and tailored support that can enable them to fulfil their potential.
“In a true meritocracy, we should not be apologetic about stretching the most academically able to the very highest standards of excellence.”
Mrs May sought to allay concerns that middle-class parents will ensure their children seize the lion’s share of places in selective schools by paying for tutoring, insisting that new-style smart tests will be able to assess the “true potential” of each pupil.
And she said that schools will encouraged to recruit students at 14 and 16 as well as 11, to avoid the danger of children being written off as non-academic at the start of their secondary careers.
Mrs May said the EU referendum in June had exposed a “profound sense of frustration” among large sections of the population about the struggles they face - including the fight to find a good school for their children.
In response to these concerns, she said: “I want Britain to be the world’s great meritocracy - a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow.
“I want us to be a country where everyone plays by the same rules; where ordinary, working-class people have more control over their lives and the chance to share fairly in the prosperity of the nation.
“And I want Britain to be a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege; where it is your talent and hard work that matter, not where you were born, who your parents are or what your accent sounds like.”
Mrs May’s proposals sparked widespread concern among educationalists, unions and political opponents, as well as within the PM’s own party.
Ofsted boss Sir Michael told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “We will fail as a nation if we only get the top 15%-20% of our children achieving well.
“We’ve got to - if we’re going to compete with the best in the world - get many more children to achieve well in our schools.
“My fear is that by dividing children at 11 and by creating grammars and secondary moderns - because that’s what we’ll do - that we won’t be able to achieve that ambition.”
Tory MP Dr Sarah Wollaston said the PM had spoken, on her arrival at Downing Street, of her desire to reverse inequality, and warned: “I think we need to be very careful that we’re not ending up giving one message but introducing policies that go in the opposite direction.”
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said the return to grammars was an “out-of-date, ineffective approach” which would be defeated in the House of Lords.
Asked how many new grammars she wanted to see opened, Mrs May said: “I’m not setting a quota for the number of schools that are suddenly going to become grammar schools.
“This is about local circumstances, it’s about what parents want locally, there will be institutions that will come forward, there may be groups of parents who want to set up a new free school as a selective school.
“This is about opening the system up to a greater diversity.”