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Graham Brady: “I owe my career to grammar school”

As chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady has the Prime Minister on speed dial. He is also a powerful campaigner for more selection in state education.

A few months ago, walking along the corridor in the Palace of Westminster that runs parallel to the Thames terrace, I was distracted by the sound of voices coming from one of the function rooms. When parliament is sitting, there are multiple receptions every evening, many of which are in aid of causes so obscure that the desultory few who turn up for the drinks and canapés seem scarcely to know why they are there. But this event had attracted an unusually large and vociferous crowd. The sign by the door showed why: “Friends of Grammar Schools”.

Fast-forward to a warm late summer’s day, and I’m sitting opposite Graham Brady, the official host of that reception and chair of the Conservative Party’s influential 1922 Committee of backbench MPs, in his charming garden at his home in Altrincham and Sale West, his constituency in the north-west of England. “I think we had at least a hundred Conservative MPs [at that Commons event], which, outside of a party conference – and even at party conference these days – it’s virtually impossible to achieve,” he says with pride. He is certain that the support he received from his colleagues that night (Michael Howard, Michael Gove and David Davis were all present) reveals “very broad support” for selective education in the party.

In the post-2010 coalition Conservative Party there are very few issues about which you can find ten Tory MPs who agree completely on a course of action, let alone a hundred. And yet, the party’s official stance continues to be an absolute ban on the introduction of any further selection in the state sector. In May 2007, David Cameron described those who were criticising his refusal to commit to bringing back grammar schools as “inverse class warriors”. They were “delusional”, he said, and “clinging on to outdated mantras that bear no relation to the reality of life”.

Was Brady delusional? He was serving at the time under Cameron in a front-bench role as Conservative shadow minister for Europe. He resigned that same month after David Willetts, then Tory education spokesman, made a speech to the Confederation of British Industry in which he argued that grammar schools were a barrier to social mobility. Willetts said: “If the evidence were different and if grammar schools could still . . . transform the opportunities of many children from poor backgrounds, then we would be obliged to look very seriously at the case for their introduction. But the fact is that grammar schools don’t any longer work like that.”

Born in Salford, the son of an accountant and a clerical assistant, Brady attended Altrincham Grammar School before studying law at Dur­ham University. He worked as a public affairs consultant before he entered parliament in 1997. He says he was inspired to become involved with political campaigning as a teenager when local grammar schools in Trafford were threatened with closure.

“The disagreement we had [in 2007] – and I give credit to the New Statesman because it was the New Statesman online that asked me to write the first riposte on it – the problem was not that [Willetts] was reiterating a policy that we would have no more grammar schools. I knew that was David Cameron’s proposition, and he’d been open about that when he stood for the leadership of the Conservative Party. I didn’t agree with it, but I accepted it.

“The problem was that he went further and advanced an argument against existing grammar schools. For those of us who have fought long and hard and actually won that argument in the places that we represent, that was not acceptable. It wasn’t possible to leave that unchallenged . . . It needed to be refuted.”

Brady resigned from the front bench so that he could speak freely. He has hardly stopped since. Before his resignation, his promising political career had followed a fairly conventional path, through the role of PPS to the then Conservative Party chairman, Michael Ancram, and then a period in the opposition whips’ office, followed by a variety of front-bench roles. Now, he occupies arguably the most powerful position open to a Conservative backbencher. Because his role as chairman of the 1922 Committee includes a responsibility to deliver the independently formed views of backbench Tories to the party’s leadership, Brady is free to call and meet Cameron and his closest advisers as he wishes. He is known in Westminster as one of the few people who “have the Prime Minister on speed dial”.

Perversion of power

With the advent of Michael Gove’s wave of “free schools”, an extension of Labour’s academies programme embodying true-blue Conservative ideas about the devolution and marketisation of education, you could be forgiven for thinking that the rift that led to Brady’s resignation had healed. But delve a little deeper, and you see that the old wound festers. Even though it seems Cameron has ruled out the possibility of a return to grammar schools, public opinion appears to differ. A poll for ICM in 2010 showed that 76 per cent would support the opening of grammar schools in areas that don’t offer academic selection. Brady expresses his frustration in mild terms – “it is certainly odd that politicians should go to such extraordinary lengths to avoid doing something so popular” – but it is clear that the tension runs deep.

A law passed by Labour in 1998 and upheld by the coalition prevents the founding of further selective schools; existing schools, however, are permitted to create “annexes” or “satellites” that allow them to expand on to new sites and into different areas. In effect, you can start what is a new selective school without having to call it one by name. Such expansion plans are already in train in Kent and Devon.

It’s a supremely contradictory arrangement, amounting to an educational postcode lottery. If you are born in Buckinghamshire, Kent or Trafford, where grammar schools are still prevalent and there is an appetite for expansion, you can choose to send your children to a selective school. If not, you can’t.

Does Brady ever raise this contradiction with Downing Street? He smiles wryly. “I think the paradox is so obvious it would be difficult not to recognise it.”

He continues: “The more I’ve been involved in the debate about the selective system, the more it becomes clear to me that, for a great many people discussing this issue, [they] are doing so in a time warp – they are debating the selective system as it was 40 years ago . . . It’s not just the quality of the grammar schools, it’s the outstanding quality of the [non-selective] high schools as well which I think brings us closer to a genuine selective system.”

To Brady, academic selection in schools is an unequivocal good. The powerful counterarguments against it – that it benefits only the small pool lucky enough to be selected at the age of 11; that it is to the disadvantage of those who aren’t selected, deprived as they are of bright and hard-working classmates to push up standards; that it privileges the middle class over the less well-off and the poor – are supported by substantial evidence. Many of the 164 remaining grammar schools in England are among the best-performing schools in the country. However, in Kent, where there are 33 grammars, 55 per cent of the poorest pupils get GCSE results in the bottom 20 per cent nationally, indicative of the two-tier standards that selection can create.

The solution to underperformance among poorer children, Brady argues, is an education system with more selection, not less. “In my view, it’s about the quality of the other schools. There’s something tragically British in the way we approached this when the postwar settlement was implemented. If the weakness was the secondary moderns, it was tragic that what we did was abolish most of the grammar schools rather than improve the quality of the secondary moderns.”

Selective schools have come to be perceived as elitist, he says, partly because there simply aren’t enough of them. He cites the example of the few grammar schools still running in London, which, he says, have “been forced to become so highly selective because there are so few of them . . . When there’s just the one grammar school with a population of 200,000 or half a million people seeking places at schools, [grammars] become ultra-selective.”

It would also help, he believes, if we accept that the principle of selection is applied more broadly, beyond a purely academic setting: “It’s a strange thing that you can select for any specialism you like, and everyone thinks that’s great. You can select for a ballet school, or for a music college, but if you say, ‘We’d like a school that specialises in the more academic end of the scale,’ then that’s forbidden except in those places where it already exists.”

Brady’s frustration with this inertia is palpable. “The logic of what the government is doing with education – and I very strongly endorse it – is actually to transfer the power and the choice away from the government and give it far more genuinely to communities and parents to choose the kind of schools they want.” He pauses. “It’s in that context that it is more perverse than ever that the government then prohibits [one of the choices].”

Neither left nor right

Brady might feel that his views on the subject of selective education are “very widely held in the Conservative Party”, even if his fellow MPs do not have his freedom to speak publicly about it, or lack the courage to do so. What of his parliamentary colleagues across the floor? Only one Labour MP attended the Friends of Grammar Schools reception – Kate Hoey, the MP for Vauxhall – and yet the arguments Brady makes about social mobility and opportunity for all are historically more the preserve of the left and the Labour Party, something that he freely acknowledges.

“These arguments sometimes get trapped in particular parts of the political spectrum,” he says. “There’s this paradox that it was the left in British politics that did so much to remove opportunities for a quality free education from working-class people who had no other alternatives. There is no reason why that should be a left-right argument.

“If anything, it should be the left in British politics that would perhaps be more concerned about the presence of a very good and high-quality independent sector and less concerned about the availability of very good, highly academic state schools that you can attend regardless of your ability to pay. I think the left got trapped in the wrong end of that discussion.”

In an interview last year, asked if he was a “Cameroon”, Brady replied with his customary unassertive ease that “I’m not particularly familiar with Notting Hill”. Indeed, it’s easy to caricature Brady and Cameron as two different kinds of Conservative, destined always to lock horns: the grammar school boy versus the Old Etonian, northern toil against southern privilege. But Brady is a more complex and influential figure than that. Though many might contend that his love of the grammar school system caused him to commit career suicide in 2007, in fact he feels he owes his very career to his education. He represents the area where he went to grammar school and feels duty-bound to do everything he can to ensure that others have the same opportunities he had. Whatever your views about selective education, there is something inestimably admirable about that.

Caroline Crampton is editor of the New Statesman website

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.