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Four reasons why the government (probably) won’t u-turn on grammar schools

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Today the government launched a consultation trying to define who counts as an ‘ordinary working family’ and Justine Greening gave a speech on the government’s plans for grammar schools. Despite much of the sector being against the policy, it’s unlikely to be defeated. Here are four reasons why.

It doesn’t matter that the evidence doesn’t stack up

The evidence shows that very few disadvantaged children benefit from grammar schools and that they are a poor tool if you want to boost social mobility. And educational experts are not shy about saying so. I’m not sure it matters. The reason why Michael Gove’s ‘people are fed up of experts’ comment gained so much traction is that it rang true. Some people have lost faith, unfortunately, with ‘experts’, and 2016 taught us that people are quite keen on ignoring what a perceived establishment is telling them. The fact that the great and the good of the sector are lined up against the policy, keen to shout ‘evidence!’ at any given moment, is probably not that much of a problem for a government pitching itself as being on the side of the decent majority versus the unaccountable elite. It might even help.

It doesn’t matter that the government won’t acknowledge the secondary moderns issue

Creating new grammar schools inevitably means affecting the pupil intake of neighbouring schools, and in effect creating a new generation of secondary moderns by another name. Most in the sector agree this is a bad thing. But will parents? Won’t most assume that their child will pass the admissions test and get to attend the shiny new grammar? It’s natural for parents to think the best of their kids, rather than assume they will fail. And the belief that ‘some kids just aren’t academic’ is still ingrained, despite Michael Gove’s best efforts, so acknowledging that other children will get a less academic curriculum might not be as bad as it sounds anyway. More people support opening new grammar schools than think they should be closed.

It doesn’t matter that London might complain

Much like the national funding formula (NFF), the government’s consultation document on analysing family circumstances puts the spotlight firmly on the non-urban. It says that ‘ordinary working families’ “are in their highest proportions in local authorities outside urban centres in the North and East of England”. And “unlike those eligible for pupil premium funding, they are not as commonly found in city centres – this is most apparent in London, where there are lower proportions across most local authority districts within the M25 than outside it.”

The agenda is clear. The government is quite clearly prioritising voters outside inner London, always a Labour stronghold in parliament. But the idea that London has had too much of the spotlight in all areas of public policy has almost become a truism, so the sound of London schools, MPs, and journalists complaining about the government ignoring the capital is unlikely to damage the government’s plans too greatly. Again, it might even make them more popular.

And finally … it’s Brexit, stupid

Grammar schools are central to Theresa May’s plan for rejuvenating the divided UK post Brexit. It fits in very snuggly with the government’s white paper on housing, the apprenticeship levy and plans to reduce immigration as a policy aimed at those who feel ‘society doesn’t work for them’. A u-turn on grammars would lead to accusations that the PM’s plan for Britain post-Brexit has failed.

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