Opinion

With a looming election, will we ever see the grammar schools consultation response?



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.



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7 Comments

  1. Once there were no academies, very few good comprehensives (for a decade or so), and private schools were much more closed to aspiring youth. Now, May’s projected type of grammar school with openings for aspiring academics regardless of post-code and wealth and with the three age levels as which new pupils may enter is an entirely different institution to eleven-plus-that’s-it grammar entrance exam of the past. How it is that so many teachers are opposed – despite the popularity of grammar schools among the general public – is a sign of the dumbed-down times we live in.

    • David Barry

      If the proposed “Grammer Schools” are, as you say, a completely different institution to the “Grammer Schools” of the past, why then does the Government CALL them Grammer Schools, talk of ‘bringing back” Grammer Schools, talk of “overturning the ban” on Grammer Schools?

      If, actually we are all terribly confused on this, including Laura (except Mr. Priddy) we have good excuse.

    • Janet Downs

      The evidence is clear: early selection may result in a small benefit to the selected but has a negative effect on the majority who aren’t. That’s not a sign of ‘dumbed-down times’ – it’s a sign of weighing up evidence instead of relying on personal anecdotes.

    • Mark Watson

      Yup, good luck with this Robert. You will not find a lot of open-minded people on these message-boards.
      If you stray from the diktat (“academies are bad, grammar schools are evil”) there won’t be a great deal of consideration of the points and arguments you’re making.
      I’ve been sitting on the fence for a while on whether I think more grammar schools is a good thing. To my mind the two big potential problems are:
      1. A selection mechanism that can be manipulated – i.e. by people who can afford it paying high prices for tutoring; and
      2. A mechanism that has a single cut-off point, the 11+, which means children that develop later are not able to move across.
      If these two points are addressed and covered off then I think I would lean towards supporting the concept. I do, however, recognise the difficulties in this, especially the first test.

  2. BTW, I am a retired philosophy and sociology Ph.D. – former lecturer in those subjects at the University of Oslo, formerly a grammar school boy in Gidea Park. Now 80 years old. I have stimulated one major reform in the University of Oslo, redesigning it’s entrance exam.

    • Janet Downs

      Entrance exams for university are not the same as the flawed 11+ which divided children into the minority ‘bright’ and the majority ‘not so bright’. Evidence shows that such crass division may benefit the chosen few but has a negative effect on the rest. That was true 70 years ago when you passed the 11+ and 60 years ago when I both failed the test (not bright enough for the grammar) and passed (bright enough to go to a technical school).
      BTW – if grammars are full in Year 7, then the only way they can be flexible enough to welcome entrants further down the line is to eject some of those chosen at 11. Can’t see that being popular with parents.

  3. Mark Watson

    Please please please stop this patronising “we all know better than the general public” stuff.
    I know it’s inconvenient for you to acknowledge that the general public are in favour of grammar schools. And as I’ve said before this doesn’t mean that they’re right. But stop with all these excuses such as “oh it must be because of the Government’s surreptitious social media campaign”.
    The YouGov survey in August 2016 showed pretty substantial majority support for grammar schools across the general public and this was months before the “social media campaign” (i.e. the single tweet from DfE in November 2016).
    And just because opponents to grammar schools shouted loudest during the consultation doesn’t mean they’re right either.
    You said “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.” Actually, the reality is that they have sight of what SOME people think about the policy”. I saw various efforts organised by groups opposing academies encouraging people to register their opposition – didn’t see many the other way representing the general public.
    This is an important issue, but I am so massively turned off by the so-called experts on BOTH sides (yes, I’m lumping the fervent supporters in as well) who have exactly the same attitude – “we know that we know best, and those poor misguided people who don’t think the same way as we do just don’t understand the reality”.