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8 September 2016

Theresa May’s backing for new grammar schools is her sharpest break with David Cameron

By repudiating her predecessor's opposition to academic selection, the Prime Minister has shown Tory MPs that she is one of them. 

By George Eaton

On 17 May 2007, at a meeting of the Conservative 1922 committee, David Cameron’s education policy was denounced as “ridiculous” and “absurd”. The cause was his opposition to new grammar schools. His critics, he had written, “simply don’t understand that the idea of introducing a few extra grammars says nothing to thousands of parents worried about children languishing in failing schools … It is a classic example of fighting a battle of the past rather than meeting the challenges of the future.” 

Throughout his premiership, backed by Michael Gove, Cameron upheld this stance. Though he belatedly supported the expansion of existing grammar schools, he never questioned the 1998 law banning the creation of new ones. Rather than advocating academic selection, Cameron and Gove hymned their commitment to non-selective academies and free schools.

At last night’s meeting of the 1922 commitee (chaired by Graham Brady, who resigned as shadow Europe minister over Cameron’s stance), Theresa May performed a reverse Cameron. Having remained publicly coy since becoming Prime Minister, she told Tory backbenchers what we already knew: that she favours an “element of selection”. To her detractors, she issued a sharp rebuke: “We have already got selection haven’t we – it’s called ‘selection by house price'”. 

May was careful to state that she wanted the new grammars to be “inclusive, not exclusive”. They would be established only where there is parental demand and priority would be given to less affluent areas. In response to an urgent question from Labour, Education Secretary Justine Greening ruled out a return to the 11-plus system while sounding notably unenthused by the proposals. But the breach with Cameron is unmistakable. Some of the 500 new free schools announced by the former PM in his dying days, May suggested, could be selective. 

There were Tory MPs who never forgave Cameron for his opposition to grammar schools (letters demanding a confidence vote were lodged). By the same measure, they will laud May. Though the Prime Minister’s support for grammar schools is patently sincere, the move will do her no harm in managing the Tory right as she negotiates Brexit. We will soon learn whether the vanquished Cameroons are prepared to be as recalcitrant as their enemies. 

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A significant number of Conservative MPs, to echo Margaret Thatcher’s categorisation, never felt that Cameron was “one of us”. His stance on grammar schools was resented all the more for his expensive education. The grammar-school educated, suburban May is more culturally aligned with her party than her metropolitan predecessor. In 2007, Cameron inflicted a wound that never healed. Last night, May began the recovery.