New cash for grammar schools represents a rare May move – emulating David Cameron

The £50m in new funding for selective schools is a huge climbdown from May’s original plans on new grammars. 

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Is Theresa May bringing back bringing back grammar schools? Selective schools are to receive £50m in funding for new places from the government under plans announced today.

The news has naturally been spun as an attempt to disinter the corpse of an old May favourite. A new generation of grammars was a cause particularly dear to the heart of Nick Timothy, her former chief of staff, and was one of the first domestic policies jettisoned after the Tories lost their majority.

In reality, though, it is anything but. The new funding represents a significant climbdown from May’s original aim: new grammar schools across the country.

That goal was always an ambitious one. This funding, constrained as it is by Britain’s educational geography and the need for applicants to demonstrate a demand for new places, won’t result in any significant change in the shape of our secondary education system.

In theory it will allow for the creation of annexes and satellites of existing grammars some miles from their original sites, but their appearance in any significant number is unlikely.

Such plans have proved contentious in the past and the Department for Education has stressed there will be a “very high bar” for such expansions.  And, by any chalk, there simply isn’t enough money to do it: the only “new” grammar school to have opened in the past 50 years – the Sevenoaks annex to Tonbridge’s Weald of Kent Grammar School – cost £19m. New schools in disguise, especially those swanky enough to be palatable to the parents clamouring for more grammars, won't come cheap. 

We won’t see anything like what May originally intended when she sought to tear up decades of cross-party consensus on new grammars. The Prime Minister is instead doing something she rarely does: emulating David Cameron. It was he who changed the law to allow existing grammars to expand in 2013. Working within his framework is an admission that there are no political means to achieve a key plank of that early – and now lost – Mayism.

Like her predecessor, she is doing little more than offering a sop to traditionalists at the expense of existing institutions and within existing law. She will gain similarly little from doing so. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.