Will Theresa May's grammar school proposals get through parliament?

Henry Stewart's picture

Ever since Theresa May announced her policy of more grammar schools, I have been trying to work out the reasoning. Surely if it is not defeated in the Commons, it will lose in the Lords?

Whatever her personal beliefs why would the Prime Minister pursue a policy sure to end in defeat? 

At first I assumed the proposals would be defeated in the Commons. With a working majority of just 16 (after taking account of Sinn Fein MPs and the Speaker and Deputy Speakers not voting), surely there are enough Tory MPs prepared to abstain or vote against to prevent any pro-selection legislation being passed.

Add in Douglas Carswell and it becomes 18. However we must take account of the Northern Irish (of whom the Unionists would vote for grammar schools) and Scottish MPs, with the SNP having a policy of not voting on legislation that only affects England. The SNP has been flexible around that policy. On Question Time this Thursday the SNP Home Affairs spokesperson, Joanna Cherry, stated that their vote would depend on the wording of the legislation. 

However they may not get the chance to choose. Under Cameron's "English votes for English laws" rules, it is now up to the speaker to decide which MPs can vote on which legislation. (Here is the BBC describing how this was done on the Housing Bill). As grammar schools would only affect English schools, it seems likely the speaker would stop Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs from voting. Taking out the other 14 Northern Irish MPs takes the working majority to 32, removing the 59 Scottish MPs (one of whom is Conservative) takes it to 89 and removing the 40 Welsh MPs (of whom 11 are Conservative), brings a working majority to 107. It would take a lot of Conservative abstentions or votes against to overturn that.

But there is no government majority in the Lords and the press has been suggesting that any bill will be blocked there. Under the Salisbury convention (which dates from the Attlee government) the Lords will not oppose a government policy at its 2nd reading, if it was included in the manifesto on which the government was elected. Grammar schools, of course, were not in the Conservative manifesto.

I have even heard a suggestion that Theresa May expects that the proposals will be defeated in the Lords. The plan, it is argued, is to respond to a Lords defeat by engineering an early election, and going to the electorate on the joint basis of the democratic right to govern and grammar schools. Although opinion polls suggest the majority are opposed to creating more grammar schools, the suggestion is that it is a policy that will win over elements of the pro-Brexit and UKIP electorate, and is also more popular with the older electors who are more likely to vote.

Its a great conspiracy theory but perhaps a bit unlikely. I'm not sure those who expect a defeat in the Lords have actually talked to any peers. I think people are over-estimating how prepared the Lords are to oppose primary government legislation. They are very aware that they lack the elected authority of the Commons and are more likely to pass amendments to the Bill than to oppose it outright. 

Those amendments are unlikely to be wrecking amendments. What is needed are amendments that are entirely reasonable but make the actual creation of new grammar schools more unlikely, such as requiring a local referendum before one is created.

So its time to put our thinking hats on. What should those amendments be?


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Emma Bishton's picture
Tue, 20/09/2016 - 10:25

 A practical issue, I know, but I think there should have to be a rural equality impact assessment. Or outright making selective schools responsible for (organising and paying for) home-school transport. Not likely to put the brakes on in urban areas, I appreciate, but in more rural areas councils (not schools) are still responsible for home-school transport, and they won't have extra money to bus more children around for miles just because the government tells them to.  School choice of any sorts is a bit of a nonsense anyway in rural areas, except for those children with a parent able to afford the time and money to drive them miles to school. Most of these rural areas have Tory MPs..

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/09/2016 - 10:49

Good idea.  At present, LAs have to pay for transport to the nearest local school if that schools is a certain number of miles away from the pupil's home.   If the nearest school isn't the grammar, then pupils who pass the 11+ can't get free transport.  Their parents have to pay.  That deters the very children the Government claims to care about: the 'just about managing'.  If a family's just about managing, then they can't afford the hundreds of pounds needed for transport.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/09/2016 - 10:34

Perhaps insist there is a local referendum to agree to the dismantling of area-wide comprehensive education on the grounds that just one selective school would mean neighbouring schools would no longer be comprehensives.


Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/09/2016 - 10:35

Or insist there must be a majority of secondary schools in the local area in favour of a proportion of them becoming selective.  This could prevent one school arbitrarily acting in such a way that it would have a negative effect on the others.  If there is such a majority, then it should be up to another authority, say the LA, Regional Schools Commissioner, even the DfE), to decide which of the area's schools should be selective.


Ivan Godfrey's picture
Wed, 21/09/2016 - 15:57

I thought my contributing days were over but the madness of current proposals force me back in to the fray!

Although this is not a direct response to Henry's specific request it does touch on issues raised.  We have to realise, however, that, firstly, Theresa May is very much a Daily Mail prime minister and, secondly, that we seem to be entering, across the world, an era of post-rational thought.  In other words, common sense, logical arguments, evidence and facts presented to the general public run the risk of being nullified by simplistic appeals to gut instincts and emotions.

With this in mind I would suggest:

1. Whenever discussing the issue of selection and the rejection of 80% of young people at the age of 11 we should avoid as much as possible using the words 'grammar schools'.  They conjure up a cosy, non-threatening image and avoid the obvious implications of rejection of the overwhelming majority.   Parents and grandparents instinctively assume that their offspring would 'pass' - they need to be reminded all the time that the opposite is much more likely.  Let's encourage educationalists, supportive MPs and journalists to talk every time in the discussion about selection about 'rejection', 'secondary moderns' and 'threat of failure for the majority'.

2. Inevitably there will be individuals who can cite their grammar school experience as being positive. They don't know, of course, what might have happened if they had gone elsewhere and how much they might have gained from that experience.  We know personally, however, of many individuals who still bear the scars of that sense of 'failure' at age 11.  We need to encourage these people to come forward and relate their experiences ... after all there are many more failures than passes.

3. Here in rural Devon nearly all towns have but one secondary school.  Only one, Exeter ( with a Labour MP ), could possibly accommodate the sort of re-organisation implicit in introducing selection without encountering major cost implications.  In the rest of the county there would either have to be a huge amount of new school building to ensure two secondaries in each town or one town in 4 or 5 would convert to selection and the other 4 would have to become secondary moderns with all of the disruption and enormous transport cost implications that would entail.  Write to the local MP to ask if (s)he could indicate which town in their constituency should house the selective school and how the cost of disruption and the transport costs for all the displaced pupils will be met.  Most rural constituencies have Tory MPs.  Some may take the line of a local Tory councillor whose response to this question was 'S** the practicalities!'  Those, however, with any awareness of the challenges of financial restraint for the foreseeable future might just pause for thought!

Robbie's picture
Thu, 27/10/2016 - 14:54

This is all very well but you do realise that one of your leading bloggers operates a 10% selection system at the school she is Chair of Governors. 

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