From a political perspective, the Conservative idea to reinstate grammar schools is a truly great policy. In the popular imagination grammars represent a place of rigour, discipline, and academia, and the 11+ as a concept appeals to a pseudo-meritocratic impulse in Conservative voters. In theory it is fair: in practice it favours them and their families.
When Labour politicians, leading union officials, and normal teachers rally in defence of the comprehensive ideal the Conservatives can wearily shake their heads, shrug their shoulders and say: we tried. They stopped us. Remember ‘the blob’ that Gove talked about? Here it is again. It is a policy that costs nothing to announce and makes those of us who devote our professional lives to improving the educational outcomes of young people look like the major barrier they face to success.
Meanwhile, schools are starved of funding and no one talks about it. Teaching continues to struggle to recruit sufficiently good applicants in sufficiently high numbers, and no one talks about it. There is only so much air-time that can be dedicated to education. Only one story is likely to break through into the mainstream. A fist-fight over grammars is a lot juicier than another public service complaining it lacks sufficient funds to serve the public properly.
Whilst talking about reintroducing grammars is an excellent move, actually reintroducing them across the country is a terrible idea. Not because individual grammar schools are intrinsically bad. Whilst some are bastions of privilege and unhappy hot-houses, others can be magical places. Like John McDonnell, like Jeremy Corbyn, like Dianne Abbott, like 27% of Labour MPs elected in 2010, I went to one. It changed my life. I found the high academic expectations the school had, that my teachers had, challenging and thrilling. My old grammar makes Michaela seem like a forest school. It was a stand-up-in-silence, sit-down-shut-up-and-get-your-books-out, 1950s-style institution. Emphasis on institution. I was the first person in my family to go to university and I went to Oxford. And that was normal for the school. I owe my grammar school very much indeed. To castigate it would be ungrateful, inaccurate and churlish.
But what was the local comprehensive in the town like? You know the answer to that. And that is the problem.
It is the non-attenders of grammar schools who will be impacted by this policy. Of course, it will affect the poorest children the most, even if Justine Greening violates the meritocratic purity of the 11+ in order to favour poorer families. But if we widen our scope out still further, we will see that three times more children will not attend grammars than attend them. As Angela Rayner has repeatedly pointed out, the re-introduction of grammar schools is also the re-introduction of secondary moderns.
When it comes to re-designing our schools, we must ask if what we are building is fair and just. This brings me to John Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’, or ‘original position’. Rawls states that we should create systems and institutions we would happily be part of regardless of our role or position within them. With that in mind, would you support the nationwide re-introduction of grammars if you knew your child would go to the secondary modern? Or would you rather that there was an outstanding comprehensive school in your town instead? If you had the money to launch new grammars, would you? Or would you ensure that existing schools were properly financed?
Of course, there are deficiencies and blind-spots in comprehensive schools and there is an unacceptable variability of school quality across the country that disproportionately affects poor people. Schools are running out of money and that is affecting provision in a profound way. The introduction of grammar schools does nothing to alleviate any of these problems.
I had expected the Conservatives fascination with grammar schools to have abated by now.