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12 September 2016

Justine Greening wants to do far more than simply bring back grammar schools

Restrictions on faith schools are also to be lifted. 

By Julia Rampen

When the Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, laid out the Government’s plans for education on Monday, she depicted it as a conversation that would lead towards “a truly meritocratic country”. 

But read between the lines, and this is not an agenda for policy wonks. The Government is speaking to a specific group – the lower-income families that voted for Brexit Britain. 

The English education system Greening sketched out (the policy is devolved) is one that satisfies conservative nostalgia. She pledged to expand grammar schools, lift the 50 per cent cap on religious pupils admitted to faith schools, and encouraged independent schools to take a paternalistic interest in the state sector. 

Nevertheless, the consultation identified one group in particular of concern – children who come from families “just managing” who nevertheless miss out on free school meals. It stated: 

“There is no reliable national picture of the impact of policy on families above the FSM eligibility threshold. 

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“There is no way to differentiate between the school experience of a child from a family which is struggling to get by, and that of a child from the wealthiest 10 per cent of families. 

“This distorts policy to focus at a cliff edge whereas the reality is that there are children from ordinary, working families with otherwise similar educational prospects not getting the support they need.”

As for grammar schools, the consultation noted the tiny percentage of free school meal pupils entering selective education, but continued: “There is no clear understanding of the number of children of ordinary, working families in selective education or the relative incomes of parents.”

Greening floated the idea of more flexible selection than the traditional test at 11. She declared: “We do not want to see a return to the old binary system of good schools and bad schools.”

Indeed, her “ordinary, working families” could soon be knocking at private school doors. Greening’s prospectus warns independent schools to increase the number of school places for poorer children, sponsor state schools, or lose their charitable status. Universities that wish to raise fees will be expected to sponsor or open schools too. 

Despite the polarising debate around grammar schools, Greening comes across as a pragmatic reformer rather than an ideological zealot.

But if her attempt to diversify elite education is genuine, when it comes to faith schools, she gives up the fight. She wants to abolish the cap on religious pupils, on the grounds that it is ineffective, and instead to encourage the twinning of schools of different faiths, and other multi-faith activities. Although Greening lays out sanctions for schools that resist, it is not clear how easily such resistance can be quantified.

Secular schools already allow for multi-faith interaction, including with the one in four people in England and Wales who have no religion at all. A Brexit Britain may force the snobs to accommodate the oiks, but it won’t pave the way for other types of integration.