“Rejoice! Theresa May’s grammar schools agenda could deliver true social justice” proclaims a masthead of the glorious Daily Telegraph. Howls of outrage from Labour and Lib Dem politicians subsequently follow decrying the notion that grammar schools could soon be opening up in a street near you come flowing from the other direction.
But here’s the nub. Those same politicians who have cried foul and those same papers that have said rejoice are missing the point. The whole grammar school idea is a whopping, bloody, splatted, stinking, flea riddled, eye dangling out of the socket dead cat which they both seem unable, or unwilling to notice.
“Let us suppose you are losing an argument,” once wrote Boris Johnson in his beloved £250,000 a year Daily Telegraph column.
“The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and the more people focus on the reality the worse it is for you and your case. Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as ‘throwing a dead cat on the table, mate’.”
In other words, if you are in deep shit, do something that will distract everyone from seeing that you are in deep shit by slapping something worse on the table and shouting about how horrible it is.
The entire education system, from nurseries to universities is in that deep shit at the moment. Nurseries say that they cannot afford to provide the 30-hours of free care anymore. Their is a massive teacher shortage that has never been experienced by the British education system before with both recruitment and retention getting much, much worse. Pupil numbers, thanks to all the procreation during the great recession of 2008-9, have ballooned and are about to enter the creaking at the seams secondary school system which has neither the schools, the teachers or the classrooms to house them let alone educate them. Class sizes are increasing dramatically across the board and look likely in many areas to break legal limits on the number of kids in one room. The removal of ‘council bureaucracy’ and the creation of the free school system means that local authorities can’t now build new establishments to house these extra kids. Meanwhile, that very same flagship free school programme has done nothing to improve standards and – the other recent reinvention of education – faith schools are increasingly being seen as dangerously divisive in towns and cities across the country. The NUT has held 11 day-long strikes in two years over increasing workloads and school funding. Colleges, the bastion of post GCSE education, are being torn to shreds as successive governments ignore their value. And universities, while now being able to charge some of the highest fees in the OECD, are still not being rigorously checked to see if their teaching is any good leading to a downgrade across the board on the ‘how good are your country’s universities compared to other country’s’ scale.
So it comes as no surprise with this utter mess that the new education minister, fresh from saving the world’s poor, and the new Prime Minister, wanted to, and needed to, lob a dead cat onto the table.
Grammar schools are both polemic and totemic. They are also the dead cat. Even if they were allowed to open, which would require fresh legislation to go through both Houses, it would be years before the first one would open. And even if they did – at the moment there are more than 24,000 schools in England alone with just 161 of those being grammars. Add 10, add 20, add 500, they would still be a tiny minority of establishments in a wider education system that is buckling at the seams.
To give the government PR their credit, they know that the barest mention of these selective school institutions is a red rag to a bull. The opposition go all frothy and boggly eyed, banging their heads against a desk in anger and outrage and lose all focus on the real issues within the education system. And to give the opposition parties no credit, in fact contempt, they have played the fools and walked right into the Tory trap forgetting all these ailments to concentrate all their vitriol solely on the expired feline. Theresa May may not be rejoicing and improving social justice, but she and Justine Greening will be rejoicing at the success, once again, of throwing an ex-moggy onto a table to divert people away from other major issues that should be the focus of far more inspection and ire.