PLMR's Managing Director, Elin de Zoete, shares her thoughts on the Prime Minister's proposals for education reform.

Whatever your views on grammars – and these are seemingly quite different if you ask people as parents, or if you ask from the policy perspective – today in an historic day in education policy.  Here is a quick digest of Theresa May’s first education speech as Prime Minister which, if all of the elements that need to can get through Parliament, will represent the biggest shake-up to our education system in a generation.

In her speech Ms May laid out an ambitious package of education reforms aimed at making Britain “the world’s meritocracy, where everyone plays by the same rules” and “where people have the chance to go as far as their talents can take them.”  She was clear that our current education system is skewed to the rich and the disadvantaged (through the ‘blunt’ instrument of FSM), with those on modest incomes often falling through the gaps.

Theresa May’s four specific proposals are:

1. To build on the success that has been achieved when universities step in to sponsor schools.  Theresa May will encourage more active engagement between universities and schools and will reform the University Fair Access requirements, to ensure that universities do more to support state schools.  Currently universities wanting to charge higher fees have to demonstrate the support they are giving to enable access to lower income families through bursary programmes and the like.  Ms May argued that the balance is tilted too far in favour of bursaries and she wants universities to do more to help schools directly, through direct school sponsorship and support, so that more students have the grades and confidence to get into the best institutions.

2. To remove obstacles for more faith schools emerging – Theresa May recognised the academic excellence in many faith schools and said she will break down the barriers for more schools to emerge.  She stressed that faith schools would have to demonstrate a commitment to British values and they would be looking at having non-faith or multi-faith directors on the board, twinning arrangements between schools and would encourage the growth of multi-faith Multi Academy Trusts

3. To insist that private schools do more – The Prime Minister said that she wanted “to encourage” independent schools to bring expertise and resources to bear to support state schools, but what followed sounded more definitive than that.  She said that she would ask them to do more as a condition of their privileged position and would consult on how we can amend charity commission guidance to put a tougher test in place to see what value private schools are bringing to local schools.  The ask of private schools will be proportionate to scale and resource, from lending expertise at the lower level to sponsoring and opening state schools at the other end.  Theresa May was clear that all independent schools should play a major role in creating more good school places

4. To bring back Grammar Schools – … and finally… Theresa May explained that in her view “we have got to a place where selection only works when you are wealthy and what is just about that.”  She said that “we help no-one by saying we won’t let parents who want a selective education have it” and “in a true meritocracy we shouldn’t be apologetic about stretching the most able”.  She said that it is illogical to stop new, good schools opening, so she wants to change the rules that currently stop expansion of grammars and enable new grammar schools to open where there is demand.  Pre-empting some of the counter arguments, Ms May explained that the approval process would be used to ensure that grammars contribute meaningfully to social mobility and the wider schools landscape.  This could mean that grammars are required to recruit a quota of children from disadvantaged backgrounds (although presumably not using the FSM metric), it could mean that they are asked to also establish a non-selective school or primary feeder, or partner with a non-selective school or sponsor an underperforming academy.  £50 million a year will now be invested to expand good or outstanding grammar schools. She stressed that her policy on grammar schools is not a retrograde step to a binary system, but that it is part of a diverse school system that gives parents choice.  Separating children aged 11 doesn’t need to be the case in Ms May’s dynamic vision of the new grammar schools, which would encourage in year admissions at 14 and 16 and movement between sister state schools and grammars if children begin to excel in individual subjects or across the board.

The speech was delivered against a backdrop adorned with the slogan “a country that works for everyone.”  The debate will now rage as to whether her education policy can deliver this or not.

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