Monday, 12 September 2016

The Tories Can Be Beaten on Grammar Schools

Ignoring the manufactured controversy over selective education (comprehensives have been a startling academic success, grammar schools not), there is decent residual opposition to the expansion of educational selection. In August a poll by YouGov gave the expansion of grammar schools 38 percent support. Almost every party in parliament is officially opposed to the idea. Despite suffering underfunding and competition from the private sector, the comprehensive system remains the best option for most children.

Consequently a split is emerging in the Tory Party between grammar-loving traditionalists and modernisers. It could be that the grammar plan is a feint by May to keep Brexiters on side. Or it might be genuine: she has promised to see it through, despite cabinet opposition. The former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan took to Facebook to declare, “The evidence is now incontrovertibly clear that a rigorous academic education does not need to be the preserve of the few.” The Telegraph reports that one unnamed senior cabinet minister felt the Tories had too small a majority for such a confrontation. The Tory party chairman too has voiced concern.

These may be sage words. Theresa May is in danger of significantly overplaying a weak hand. You wouldn't know it from the media, but May is only Prime Minister on the back of a catastrophic miscalculation by her hapless predecessor and an ensuing internal party stitch up. Even this remarkable string of events was the outcome of years of failure on everything from the budget deficit to productivity to immigration. The Tories are a weak governing party, a fact that the opposition only began exploiting properly last year.

Internal Tory splits over whether to pursue further academisation and the opening of more free schools or to go back to the sepia-toned days of high Tory grammars may not look like fertile ground for the left. Significantly the driving force of academisation in the last government, Michael Gove, may support May on the policy. Yet if divisions do continue, Labour will have ample space to exploit them for its own ends.

Last year, with the glow of the Tories' election victory still fresh, the new government's spending plans for the parliamentary period were revealed by a coalition of activists, politicians, and lords to be a scam - a way to further grind down the poor in order to make the Tories look tough on the deficit. George Osborne's spending plans - along with his lofty ambitions to be PM - were crushed. Key to this process was a Labour opposition leadership finally willing to fight the Tories on principle.

Despite the widespread good vibes about May emanating from much of the media, the Tories are not in a substantially better position now. Indeed the trouble is worse after Brexit. The Tories are good at image. The media - and some of the middle class - laps up their centrist poise. But the substance remains the same: they are woefully outdated, intellectually poorly equipped, and badly prepared for the tumultuous country they must now govern.

Labour needs to weaponise Tory divisions over policies like May's grammar school expansion. Just as they did last year, when billions in cuts to the poorest were avoided, Labour can help scupper Tory plans by exploiting their weaknesses.

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