There’s going to be a general election on 8th June – but what does this mean for the much-anticipated grammar schools white paper? Editor Laura McInerney gazes into the crystal ball.
If the past year of politics has taught anything, it’s that we can’t really guess the future. Not even if you’re a professional pollster.
BUT, I can say that if I was sitting in Theresa May’s office right now, being asked for my opinion on whether or not to release the results of last year’s grammar school consultation, my answer would be a resounding “NO”. Not if there’s a general election coming in June, anyway.
Here’s why. There is almost no evidence that grammar schools help anything. There are bits of data, scrapped together by pressured civil servants, which show that if you squint your eyes and turn the paper upside-down, then maybe no one gets harmed by grammars. But that’s about it.
Hence, given how many people have pointed this out, I would guess a big chunk of people responding to the consultation were pretty angry – and if you publish the results, you have to ‘fess up to that.
Of course, some people will have been positive. Not least because the government ran a surreptitious social media campaign using pretty misleading statistics to try and prompt parents into saying grammars were a good thing.
But any honest document that outlines the full picture is, at best, going to give a murky picture of the new grammar schools policy.
Hence, If I was an election campaigner, my thought would be: why publish the results? Why tell the general public how many people disagreed? Why not just stick a line in the manifesto – ‘We would overturn the ban on new grammar schools’ – and ask people to decide if they want it or not. Boom, job done.
Relying on a manifesto pledge, instead of releasing the consultation results, also stops the sort of difficult question education secretary Justine Greening had to field last week. On Radio 4’s Today she was asked to name one education expert who agrees with new grammar schools. She stuttered and avoided the question. Imagine if she could have said: “You know who’s the expert, John? The public. And that’s why we’re going to the polls and asking people, do they want grammars or not?” Job done. AGAIN.
One substantial benefit of having run a consultation is that the Conservatives now also have sight of masses of data on what people think about the policy. Nick Timothy, one of Theresa May’s key advisors, has been heading the group overseeing the consultation (that’s according the Grammar Schools Association, who went to some of its meetings). Given this, Timothy will have seen the responses. He will know who gave positive and negative responses. He has all the arguments laid out for him ready to write briefings for MPs on the campaign trail. He knows who to get in touch with for a positive comment, and who to avoid for a bad one.
Plus, remember that surreptitious social media campaign on grammars? If it was done carefully – trialling different words or statistics – it is likely the Conservatives now know what makes people click on a link about grammars. Demographic data from that campaign will show which parts of the country showed high support, or low. People in the party will know which types of parents were supportive or not. That is a very, very powerful dataset to have when going into an election – especially given how important social media was in last year’s Brexit campaign.
Of course, things may play out differently. Nothing has been a dead cert this past year or so. But my overriding feeling is that a manifesto pledge is much lower risk than releasing the full results. Make the promise, let people vote, chuck the consultation out one Friday afternoon when you’re already in power and no-one can stop your policy anyway. Game over. Job done.