On 9th September Prime Minister Theresa May announced her first major domestic policy since entering Number 10 at a press conference. Her speech, setting out "Schools that work for everyone", outlined the government’s green paper (a preliminary report intended to provoke discussion), and was streamed live.
May was introduced to the waiting press by Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, because her first domestic policy is centred on education. A theme of the Prime Minister’s speech was building a meritocracy in a Britain that works for everyone and not just the privileged few. In order for her government to deliver real social and economic reform, she identified the place to start as education.
What will happen next?
Within her speech, Theresa May announced that there would be a number of government consultations as part of the education policy. See the gov.uk website for a full list of current consultations that you can respond to, or see "Schools that work for everyone" to go directly to this consultation, as well as the Department for Education on how to respond.
After consultations, it is anticipated that the Prime Minister will start moving through with legislation to enact the policy. During this process, it will be debated in the Commons, where it is likely to be opposed by Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green and SNP MPs, but the Conservatives' majority may be enough to see the legislation passed and the policy enacted.
“I want Britain to be the great meritocracy of the world.” Theresa May.
Theresa May stated that she wants opportunity to be based on merit, and that children’s futures shouldn’t be decided by where they live and how much their parents earn. She stated that the current system especially disadvantages pupils whose parents are on moderate incomes, who may be working two jobs and are not in a position to pay for private education or to move to a catchment area of good schools.
Increasing the capacity of the school system
In order to implement these reforms, May has stated that her government will increase the capacity of the system and allow for a more diverse range of good schools. To achieve those ends, she outlined four proposals.
1. Universities sponsoring local schools
The government envisages that this will foster community engagement, with universities sponsoring chains of schools in their local area or setting up free schools in return for being able to raise tuition fees. This is to include a reform of university fair access requirements.
2. Reversal of obstacles to faith schools
The government is seeking to remove the 50% cap currently in place by which faith schools may select pupils on the basis of their faith background. This would benefit Catholic schools in particular, which are traditionally in deprived areas and often rated ‘good’ by Ofsted. As caveats, the government would expect to see faith schools:
- promote British values
- encourage integration
- possibly twin with schools of other faiths or none
- accept being run by multi-religious MATs.
3. Independent schools
The government is looking to schools in the private sector to bring their knowledge to bear to improve capacity for those who can’t pay by having places for children of “ordinary, working class families”. This would enable independent schools to give something back to the wider community. The government will make it tougher for private schools to maintain charitable status and so continue to enjoy tax-exemption. Senior leaders of private schools will be encouraged to become directors of MATs and sponsor or set up their own government-funded state schools.
4. Reversal of obstacles to new grammar schools
May’s speech outlined reasons to justify the return of selective schooling. She said that selection exists if you’re wealthy and able to pay for private schooling for your children, so the status quo advantages the privileged few over the many. She said that “dogma” and “ideology” had clouded the issue of selective schooling, and suggested that the attainment gap shrank to almost zero for pupils in selective schools. She cited that 99% of selective schools are rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, where out of that figure, 80% are ‘outstanding’ (in comparison to 20% overall for state schools). The Prime Minister said that specialist and tailored support already exists in academies focussed on music and sport, and that selective schooling was essentially the same but with a focus on academic ability. Selective schools will be expected to:
- Raise outcomes for all pupils
- Select children from lower-income families rather than those moving into catchment areas
- Establish primary feeder schools to widen access
- Sponsor under-performing non-selective schools and academies
The Prime Minister has also pledged £50 million to support the expansion of new and existing grammar schools.
Response to criticisms to selective schooling
As part of her speech, anticipating that selective schooling polarizes opinion, Theresa May set out a number of ways in which she feels her policy will address concerns people may have.
- Not a return to the binary system: there will be no return of secondary modern schools
- Not favouring the wealthy: new grammars will have to demonstrate that they are taking children from different backgrounds.
- Avoid the ‘cliff edge’ problem of the past: new grammars will be more flexible and agile than the old, which used the 11-plus examination to select pupils at age ten. Pupils will be selected at different ages, and they might join grammar schools for some rather than all subjects, or move to grammars at a later age.
- An aid to social mobility: the new grammar schools are for a meritocratic future, not an attempt to turn the clock back to a ‘golden age’.
At the end of her speech, the Prime Minister submitted to robust questioning from the press.