The sociologist Michael Young coined the term “meritocracy” to describe a dystopian society in which “merit is equated with intelligence-plus-effort”. But in her first signature speech as prime minister, Theresa May used it as unambiguous positive. Her ambition, she declared, was for Britain to become “the great meritocracy of the world”.
In this quest, May said, “there is no more important place to start than education”. The advance headlines were all on new grammar schools – and she did not disguise her intentions. May rejected the 1998 ban introduced by Labour (“it is completely illogical to make it illegal to open good new schools”) and mounted a vigorous defence of academic selection. The problem, she argued, “was not selective schools per se but rather “selection by house price”. £50m a year, May announced, would be made available “to support the expansion of good or outstanding existing grammars”.
To those who warn that this means a return to the divisive era of the 11-plus and secondary moderns, May insisted that this was not the case. New grammars, she suggested, could be required to take a proportion of pupils from lower-income households and “be asked to establish a good, new non-selective school” (which to some contradicted her vow that “there will be no return to secondary moderns”).
Rather than “the cliff-edge of selection at 11”, May said, there would be greater flexibility, with the transition sometimes happening at 14 or 16. But the conclusion was clear: there will be more children selected at 11. This stance represents her sharpest break yet with David Cameron, a consistent opponent new grammars throughout his premiership. To the charge that May has no mandate for this policy (the 2015 Conservative manifesto spoke only of allowing existing grammars to expand), a spokeswoman emphasised that the document had promised “a good school” for every child.
But the media’s preoccupation with new grammars concealed the extent of May’s ambition. In her speech, she roamed far more widely. Universities, she announced, would be required to sponsor a state school or establish a new free school in return for charging higher tuition fees. She complained of an excessive focus on student bursaries, arguing that resources were better deployed in ensuring that more make the grade to begin with.
Faith schools, she promised, would no longer be limited to selecting only 50 per cent of their pupils on the basis of their faith (a policy condemned this morning by Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston). “The intention is to improve the diversity of the school’s intake but in practice it has little impact on many Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu schools because they tend not to appeal to parents of other faiths.” May, who attended an independent Catholic school during her education, paid special tribute to the church’s institutions. They were, she said, “more ethnically diverse than other faith schools, more likely to be located in deprived communities, more likely to be rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted, and there is growing demand for them.”
Finally, and most radically for a Conservative prime minister, May announced that private schools would be forced to work harder for their charitable status and accompanying tax breaks. Those with the “capacity and capability” will be required to set up and manage new state-funded schools, or fund places for those from poorer backgrounds. May, a politician who is alternately cautious and radical, has launched an education revolution on multiple fronts.
As notable as her proposals were those they were directed at. In recent history, both Labour and Conservative politicians have spoken of “working families”. But May spoke repeatedly of “ordinary, working class people”. Echoing the words she spoke after becoming prime minister, she vowed that “everything we do will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few”. She is determined to shed the “party of the rich” label that Cameron never could.
But May also made a Thatcher-esque pitch for the lower middle class, those she described as “just about managing” and the “hidden disadvantaged”. While Ed Miliband struggled to define the “squeezed middle, the Prime Minister was far clearer about who she had in mind: “If you’re earning nineteen, twenty, twenty one thousand pounds a year, you’re not rich. You’re not well off. And you should know you have our support too.”
As a grammar school girl, May is able to deliver this message far more convincingly than the expensively educated Cameron or George Osborne ever could. Nor did her proposals appear motivated by a desire to capture “the centre ground”. For May what is right matters more than what is popular.
With a majority of just 12, and the epic task of delivering Brexit, the Prime Minister may yet find that she has overreached. But May has shown that she is not content merely to hold power – but to use it.