Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
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.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

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.

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.