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Return of the grammars: one heck of a feck-up

Theresa May might have thought her party would clamour for more selective schools, but the opposite appears to be true for many Conservatives

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Theresa May might have thought her party would clamour for more selective schools, but the opposite appears to be true for many Conservatives

On Monday evening something very odd happened. Completely out of the blue, Michael Gove (remember him?) tweeted: “Mrs Brown’s Boys #puregenius”.

Twitter went into one of its regular and short-lived meltdowns. Many wondered if his account had been hacked, others whether this famously intellectual, opera-loving young fogey was being satirical.

This was, after all, the former education secretary who took Blackadder to task for its lack of historical rigour.

Try as I might, I couldn’t shake the unlikely idea that Mr Gove might have been oh-so-gently using the farcical tomfoolery of Mrs Brown’s Boys to allude to the government’s position on the reintroduction of selection.

After all, the Conservative Party Conference was in full swing, and the lack of narrative, preparation and intellectual rigour of this policy was evident everywhere one looked. The most coherent senior Tory voices on the issue of selection were another former education secretary, Nicky Morgan, along with the current chair of the Commons Education Select Committee Neil Carmichael – both of whom are vocal opponents.

Meanwhile, schools minister Nick Gibb, who until recently was very much in favour of comprehensive admissions, tied himself in knots attempting to justify the prime minister’s policies. Most ridiculously, he told an audience that we needed more grammars because so many teachers in comprehensives were trying to resist the English Baccalaureate. Cue the kind of rolling in the aisles you’d likely see at a live recording of Brendan O’Carroll’s hit show.

And that’s before we even get started on the spurious claims made about how grammar schools drive up social mobility in both Justine Greening and Theresa May’s speeches.

Also fascinating was the vibe among the delegates. Taking the temperature of such a wide and diverse group of people – from senile backwoodsmen to angry young Conservatives – is notoriously hard. However, I chaired two fringe events in Birmingham and the sense I got was that while Theresa May might have thought she was throwing some red meat to her Tory hordes, a sizeable proportion – probably the “modernisers” – would have preferred a nice chicken stir-fry.

I even carried out an entirely unscientific straw poll at one event and a majority were against the policy.

This likely has something to do with the residual influence that Mr Gove – and his merry band of acolytes – still has in these parts. His educational reforms were wildly popular among Tories of all flavours and central to them was the idea that all children should study the “best that has been thought and said”. To suggest anything else, of course, is to be an “enemy of promise”.

And the fact that this philosophy is diametrically opposed to the reintroduction of the 11-plus across the country appeared to be getting through.

One veteran Tory-watcher told me that conversations with cabinet-level ministers suggest a compromise is already on the cards: that the government is preparing to use the legislative process of taking consultation as a way of watering down the more radical of Ms May’s proposals without losing too much face.

Quite what this will mean is anyone’s guess – after all this is her first major domestic policy, so don’t expect a full U-turn.

And, anyway, it is just about conceivable that Mr Gove loves a bit of slapstick. Just not on the curriculum. For any child. Of any ability.


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