At this point, one of the more compelling cases for the Conservatives finally lifting the ban on new grammar schools – as the Times reports Downing Street is considering – is that the Party might start thinking about something else.
Education is an important policy area which the Party has a habit of neglecting, as I noted last week in the furore over the Schools Bill. What attention many backbenchers can spare seems to be mostly about grammars.
Constantly raising the subject alienates whoever it is going to alienate, whilst failing to deliver means that nobody is won over. It’s an entirely unproductive loop to be stuck in.
Allowing grammar schools to expand or open afresh would also – provided the Government wins the next election and/or Labour doesn’t immediately can the policy – provide some much-needed fresh data to an evidence base about the efficacy of grammars which is by now more than half a century out of date.
Whilst there are 164 grammar schools still operating (full disclosure: I was lucky enough to go to one), there are serious problems with trying to assess the impact of a widespread rollout by extrapolating from that current stock.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, a lot of the features of grammar schools’ intake profiles that opponents object to are at least partly artefacts of how rare they are, with existing institutions concentrated largely in a few well-to-do areas of England and with extraordinary competition for each place.
But ‘bring back grammars’ does not a policy make, and there will clearly be wrangling about what any proposal entails. Will new sites be limited to areas earmarked for ‘levelling up’? Will Rob Halfon get his way and see places reserved for less well-off pupils?
Then there’s the electoral politics. I don’t know what data David Canzini might be looking at to justify this pivot by Downing Street, but it would be interesting to know what, if anything, has convinced Tory strategists that this would be an effective wedge issue against Labour.
Yes, areas which retained their grammar schools tend to be rock solid in support of them, for all the supposed horrors of the Eleven Plus. But there will scarcely be time to get many new selective schools, or satellite sites of existing schools, open before the next election. Will the promise of new schools be so effective?
Which also raises one other question.
This Government is developing a bad habit of stumbling into policy proposals seemingly not because of any great enthusiasm for the policy per se, but because it is viewed as fertile ground for a fight with the Opposition or other sundry forces of wokery and darkness. Recent muttering about withdrawing from the ECHR being just the most recent example.
Now there is a respectable case for withdrawing from the jurisdiction of Strasbourg, just as there is a respectable case for selective education. But ministers are unlikely to make the best cases they can on such important subjects if their primary concern is the optics of the battle.
Those MPs who have championed grammar schools have done so in good faith and for a long time. If this really is their moment, they have a responsibility to ensure that we get sensible, workable proposals, and not let their cause be misappropriated by the hunt for a few good headlines.