Are the grammar school floodgates about to open?

Will the thumping Conservative majority revive a push for the selective education that so many core Tory supporters hold dear?

grammar expansion

When a grammar school in Tonbridge, Kent, opened a satellite annexe on a campus 10 miles away in Sevenoaks, some believed it would be the first in a wave of new grammar schools being opened “through the back door” in order to circumvent the law banning new grammar schools.

It was 2015 and Lucy Powell, the shadow education secretary at the time, warned the “floodgates would open".

And, indeed, there were reports of plans for similar satellite expansions in local authorities across the country, including Buckinghamshire, Slough, Sutton, Dorset, Torbay, Lincolnshire and the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead.

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But after almost five years, none has materialised – although there is the possibility of two new annexes in Kent, including two grammars competing to open the same annexe site.

Grammar-school sources say this has been partly due to political uncertainty. So could things all be about to change with last night's thumping Conservative majority? Could a wave of satellite grammars finally emerge? And could the Conservatives go further and return to the plan hatched by Theresa May to relax the ban on new grammar schools introduced by Labour in 1998?

Even though there was no specific mention of grammar schools in the Conservative manifesto, the Education Policy Institute believes the wording is such as to leave the door open to create new grammars. 

And anti-selection campaign group Comprehensive Future told Tes today that the large Conservative majority was “worrying,” although the future of grammars was still uncertain, depending on one crucial question: “Who is guiding Boris?”

Phillip Bosworth, treasurer of the National Grammar School Association, said there was demand among existing grammar schools to build annexes, including in his own local authority area of Lincolnshire. And he said the next five years of “stability” would be sufficient time for schools to do this, while previous projects could be restarted.

But he said schools were likely to wait and see whether more money was being made available than is currently on offer in the £200 million selective-schools expansion fund.

He said: “I think you’ve got to wait until Boris Johnson sets his stall out. Until such time as they get Brexit done and they’ve caught up on quite a lot of other activity that’s been relegated to the sidelines [owing to Brexit], I don’t think grammar schools will be on the agenda.”

Jonathan Simons, a former government adviser and current director of education at consultancy firm Public First, said he didn’t believe there’d be a push for a new generation of grammars and that new plans would meet some opposition in the House of Lords. He said: “It kind of depends who the next education secretary is, but I’d be surprised if they made a big push for it. Obviously, the small expansion fund will continue, I suspect one or two more satellite applications will go in, and it will be more or less status quo.”

Mark Lehain, the former director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence and unsuccessful Conservative candidate in Newcastle North last night, said: “On grammar schools, I have not detected an appetite for any major reform on this.

“The Conservatives have already got a school system that is effective through empowering headteachers and multi-academy trusts. I don’t think there is appetite for major reforms on grammar schools but they may look to support their expansion.”

Last year, 16 grammar schools benefited from the first wave of the £200 million SSEF which, according to the DfE, “must be for an enlargement of the physical capacity of a school’s buildings”. Schools benefiting in the next phase are expected to be announced by the DfE in the next few days.

But at the start of the election campaign, a source close to education secretary Gavin Williamson said there were no plans to expand grammar schools beyond the current plans.

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Dave Speck

Dave Speck is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @Specktator100

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