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13 April 2017

The Tories’ grammar schools plan will ease Theresa May’s relations with Whitehall

The government's £26,000 definition of an "ordinary working family" gives mandarins a map.

By Stephen Bush

Are you part of an ordinary working family? The political genius of Theresa May’s appeal to the “just about managing” or “ordinary working families” is that more than two-thirds of people describe themselves as ordinary, while 20% of people with incomes in excess of £70,000 describe themselves as “just about managing”. 

But the root of the Civil Service’s frustration with their new boss is that an “ordinary working family” or the “just about managing” can mean just about anyone. Whitehall thrives when ministers set strategic aims with clear definitions. Morale is suffocating under the weight of defining just who, exactly, “ordinary working families” are.

That’s why the most important interview that the PM has done is with Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth over at the Spectator at Christmas in which she complained that civil servants were trying to define what “just about managing” meant. For most officials, that felt like an inexplicable attack on them for doing their jobs.

That was the point when anti-May poison entered the bloodstream of Whitehall, and civil servants became much more inclined to complain about Downing Street’s intransigence, Downing Street’s arrogance and Downing Street’s incompetence.

Which is why Justine Greening’s proposal that families earning under £26,0000 must make up at least a third of the entrants to new grammar schools has a significance beyond the future of May’s troubled flagship education policy.

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Park for a moment to urge to point out that Downing Street’s grammar schools wheeze has been increasingly watered down. If that £26,000 definition of an “ordinary working family” gains wider currency among ministers it will ease the sense that mandarins are being asked to drive without a map.

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It won’t, in of itself, come anywhere near close to repairing the relationship between May and officialdom. But it might be the start of a less fraught phase.