The Conservatives have kicked into the long grass a decision on whether to give the go-ahead for a new academically selective grammar school in Kent. Education Secretary Nicky Morgan was expected to rule within a month on whether Weald of Kent school in Tonbridge could set up an annexe campus eight miles away in Sevenoaks, but last night Downing Street said that no decision would be taken before the General Election in May.
If Labour take control at the election, the new school, which has already secured planning permission and a £16 million building fund, is unlikely to go ahead. But even under a new coalition arrangement or under a Conservative minority government, it is likely to be difficult for the government to secure support for the scheme post election.
Mrs Morgan has recently indicated that she is willing to grant approval for the new school, which would create 450 new grammar school places. To ensure that the plans don’t break the law on grammar expansion, she has commissioned legal advice. A spokesman from the Department of Education said “If it’s clear, there will be a decision this side [of the election]”
But opponents cast doubt on the claim, arguing that it was cynical electioneering. Ukip MP Douglas Carswell last week tweeted “Don’t believe Nicky Morgan’s pre-election spin about being pro-Grammar school. Attempt to shore up crumbling 2010 base.”
And yesterday, a source at No 10 appeared to confirm that the decision would indeed be postponed, the Times has reported, saying “I don’t think there’s going to be a decision on it this side of an election.”
The disagreement has split the Conservatives, some of whom want to see stronger commitment to expansion of grammar schools as vehicles for social mobility. Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 committee, said: “This is clearly wanted by local parents and Kent county council. It will save parents and children from unnecessary long commutes to school . . . There is clearly no reason why it can’t be dealt with immediately.”
Others point out that a soft stance on grammars is allowing Ukip to siphon away Conservative support, as Ukip has made grammar schools a central part of their education policy. UKIP Deputy Leader and Education Spokesman Paul Nuttall said “The real answer to providing first class education in this country is to provide grammar school places.”
David Cameron has flip flopped on the issue over the years, insisting in 2007 that “Far from being some winning slogan, a pledge to build more grammar schools would be an albatross.” But by February of this year he had changed his mind, saying “I strongly support the right of all good schools to expand. I think that’s very important and that should include grammar schools.”
He has made it clear that he wants to focus on expansion of the ‘free schools’ program during this election, announcing plans to open up 500 new free schools over the course of the next parliament, creating 270,000 new school places.
However, the free schools program does nothing to address the principle point in favour of grammar schools: that they are selective, which is illegal for all new schools, including free schools, under current laws.
A recent report by Ofsted found that bright pupils were far more likely to fulfil their potential at selective and grammar schools than they were at non-selective schools. Comparing children with the same level of attainment at primary school, they found that 57 percent of those who went on to selective or grammar schools achieved top marks at GCSE level, compared to just 32 percent in non-selective schools.
Commenting on Cameron’s proposal for more free schools, Mr Nuttall said “This proposed expansion is being herald as providing parents with ‘a real choice.’ But a real choice would be allowing grammar schools to be opened. They provide a level playing field for all children, regardless of background, and give them the best chances in life.”