The dog days of July probably aren’t the best time to launch a new political movement, but then the people who campaigned for Remain in the EU referendum aren’t known for their media savvy. Consequently, Paddy Ashdown made a surprise appearance on Marr last Sunday to announce the creation of More United, a ‘tech-driven political start-up’ that takes its name from a phrase the late Jo Cox MP used in her maiden speech: ‘We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.’
More United’s website doesn’t explicitly say that the organisation’s raison d’être is to overturn the result of the referendum. Rather, this is hidden away in a section called ‘Example policies’. One of the core principles that More United revolves around is that it’s pro-immigration and wants a close relationship with the EU and, as an example of what that might mean in policy terms, it says: ‘Campaign for Britain to return to full membership of the EU.’
Why bury this in the small print? (To read more, click here.)
Could grammar schools be about to make a comeback? That Theresa May went to one, and that the number of grammar-school-educated members of the cabinet has increased from three to eight since she took over, has fuelled speculation about a shift in education policy.
There are various forms this could take. The least politically difficult would be for Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, to let England’s 164 grammar schools expand. Her predecessor, Nicky Morgan, approved an application by a selective girls’ school in Tonbridge to set up an annexe in Sevenoaks; it’s due to open next year. Greening could approve several more. The school in Sevenoaks has been described as England’s first new grammar in 50 years, but because it’s a branch of an older school it doesn’t run afoul of the 1998 School Standards and Frameworks Act, which prohibited the creation of any more selective schools. If May and her Education Secretary want more grammar-school places, this would be the easiest way to get them.
Alternatively, they could bite the bullet and introduce a new education bill. Could a Conservative government with a majority of 12 get that through Parliament? (To read more, click here.)
The departure of Andrea Leadsom from the Conservative leadership race was a blow to pundits who claim we’re living in an age of ‘post-truth politics’. According to Michael Deacon, the Telegraph’s political sketchwriter, she was an ideal candidate because she embodied the ‘anti-factual’ mood of the country. ‘Facts are negative,’ he wrote, parodying the attitude of Leadsom’s knuckle–dragging supporters. ‘Facts are pessimistic. Facts are unpatriotic.’
To be fair to Deacon, whose sketches are often very funny, he noted that ‘the war on truth’ is being fought as energetically on the left as it is on the right and singled out a group of die-hard Corbynistas who believe their man is the victim of a ‘Zionist’ conspiracy. But most commentators who wheel out the phrase ‘post-truth politics’ are on the left and use it to sum up their opponents’ cynical disregard for the norms of democratic debate. Indeed, it was coined in 2010 by an American pundit called David Roberts to describe the success of Republicans in Congress. They don’t try to win support for their policy positions by making evidence-based arguments — a form of grown-up debate that only Democrats engage in, apparently. No, they exploit the knee-jerk emotional responses and tribal loyalties of their followers. If the Democrats are in favour of a policy, then it is the duty of all good Republicans to oppose it, and to hell with the facts. Since Roberts coined the phrase it has become a cliché and scarcely a day passes without some left-wing sage attributing the rise of Donald Trump to this shocking debasement of political discourse. (To read more, click here.)
When Michael Gove was asked who his favourite Game of Thrones character was by James Delingpole, he said Tyrion Lannister, whom he described as a "misshapen dwarf, reviled throughout his life, thought to be in the eyes of some a toxic figure". Does this mean Gove identifies with Tyrion? It certainly looks that way. He went on to point out that when King's Landing was under attack by Stannis Baratheon, it was this same "toxic figure" who rallied a small band of followers and saved the city. Needless to say, Tyrion got no thanks for it.
Michael Gove is among the victims of Theresa May's brutal reshuffle today, just as Tyrion found himself exiled from King's Landing, but he can take some comfort from the fact that, after a period in the wilderness, Tyrion makes a dramatic comeback. On the other hand, he only manages this by allying himself to a powerful queen in the form of Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons. Michael Gove, by contrast, seems to have made an enemy of the most powerful woman in the kingdom. So long as she stays in Downing Street, he seems destined to remain on the backbenches.
Is this the end of Gove's political career? (To read more, click here.)
It was fitting that David Cameron chose to visit Reach Academy Feltham as one of his last official acts yesterday. Reach, which was ranked Outstanding by Ofsted in 2014, is one of more than 300 free schools that have opened since 2010, with a further 161 in the pipeline and several hundred more due to open in the remainder of this Parliament. Taken together, these schools will prove to be Cameron’s greatest legacy.
Opponents of the policy have done an effective job of portraying it as a failure, drawing attention to the handful of free schools that have closed or been taken away from their founders and handed to academy chains. But the vast majority are successful. All those that opened in 2011 and 2012 have now been inspected by Ofsted and 24 per cent have been ranked Outstanding, compared to 11 per cent of all state schools inspected in the same period. Overall, 71 per cent of them have been judged Good or Outstanding. (To read more, click here.)
The fact that Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom have made positive noises about grammar schools will no doubt re-open the debate about selective education.
The argument usually boils down to the likely impact of grammar schools on social mobility. That, in turn, often becomes an argument about whether declining levels of social mobility in the UK can be attributed to the introduction of comprehensives and the gradual phasing out of grammars over the past 50 years or so.
Like most defenders of selective education, Andrea Leadsom believes grammar schools in their heyday provided bright children from modest backgrounds with the opportunity to compete with more affluent children for places at university, thereby accounting for higher levels of social mobility in the 1950s and 60s compared to today. Critics dispute this, claiming that only a small minority of children at grammar schools in the 1950s were the offspring of unskilled or semi-skilled workers and the majority were the children of members of the managerial or professional class.
The problem with this argument is that it isn't a rebuttal. It may be that only a minority of children at grammar schools in their heyday were from modest backgrounds, but it doesn't follow that the decline in social mobility since the 1950s and 60s isn't due to the decimation of grammars. It's perfectly possible that while grammars didn't do much to advance social mobility, they nevertheless did more than comprehensives – a theory that's borne out by several research studies. For instance, a famous study was carried out in 2005 by three researchers at the LSE for the Sutton Trust in which a group of children born in 1958 were compared to a group born in 1970. They found that when it comes to inter-generational mobility, the cohort born in 1970 fared significantly worse than the cohort born in 1958 – and at least one of the researchers, Professor Stephen Machin, attributed this to the closure of grammar schools. That verdict was echoed by David Byrne, professor of sociology at Durham University. In a letter to the Guardian in 2008, he wrote: "The harsh reality is that in the bad old days of the 11-plus there was more social mobility than there is now."
This positive view of grammars has been challenged by Vicki Boliver, a sociology lecturer at Bath Spa University, and Adam Swift, a politics lecturer at Oxford. In a paper for the British Journal of Sociology published last year, they argue that the gains made by children from low-income backgrounds at grammars were cancelled out by the losses experienced by similarly disadvantaged children at secondary moderns. If you compare the two-tier state education system we had in the 1950s with the broadly comprehensive system we have today, there's no evidence that children from deprived backgrounds fared better in the old system.
However, while they dispute that the introduction of comprehensives has had a negative impact on the overall level of social mobility, they acknowledge that grammars were more likely to foster bottom-to-top mobility: "The effect of grammar schools is specifically to increase somewhat the extent of the mobility experienced by those who do move up."
A variation of this argument was made recently by the journalist Daniel Knowles who said he had reservations about the creation of new grammar schools because the benefit to the bright, working class children lucky enough to attend them would be offset by the cost that less bright children at neighbouring comprehensives would pay as a result of not being taught alongside them.
The interesting thing about this point is that it shifts the debate away from a dispute about evidence and towards a choice between two competing sets of values. If we accept that bright children from deprived backgrounds are more likely to excel in grammar schools – and I think that's indisputable – and we also accept that less bright children in neighbouring schools will suffer as a result of not being taught alongside them – again, hard to dispute – the question is whether that's a price worth paying?
The choice we're faced with is not between more or less social mobility, but between two different patterns of mobility: a reasonable amount of modest mobility in a system characterised by universal comprehensive provision versus a higher level of bottom-to-top mobility offset by lower levels of modest mobility in a system that includes an element of selection.
To my mind, it's pretty clear that the latter is preferable. Why? Because everyone gains in a society when the most gifted are able to rise to the top. A brilliant child born on a council estate is less likely to discover a cure for cancer if he or she attends the local community school than if he or she attends a grammar. The classmates they might have had at the community school may suffer a little if they're not being taught alongside them; but it's nothing compared to the suffering they could alleviate by finding a cure for cancer.
This was a point well made by Alison Pearson, who put flesh on the bones of my imaginary child: "In BBC4's The Grammar School: A Secret History, Michael Portillo, the son of a Spanish immigrant, recalled a reunion at his alma mater, the fiercely competitive Harrow County School for Boys. Sadly, one old boy was unable to attend, but at least he had a good excuse. Paul Nurse was in Sweden collecting the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Raised in Wembley by his grandparents – granddad was a mechanic at the Heinz factory, nanna a cleaner – Sir Paul is a prime example of what selective education can do for a child's life chances. Is there a small boy in 2012 living in a poor home who is going to grow up to be President of the Royal Society and a Nobel Laureate? Without a grammar school education to drive him on and make him take those difficult science A levels, there's not a hope in hell."
She's exaggerating, of course. Some products of comprehensive schools do go on to become research scientists, believe it or not. It's possible for schools with mixed ability intakes to raise their pupils' average level of attainment while, at the same time, pushing the most able to achieve outstanding results – and that's precisely what we're trying to do at the West London Free School. If Nicky Morgan, or whoever the next Education Secretary is, made it possible for existing free schools to become selective, I don't think we'd move to change the admissions policy of our school. We're engaged in an effort to see what's possible to achieve with an all-ability group of children – we're trying to re-invent the comprehensive. But that doesn't mean I'm against the creation of more grammar schools.
I don't think the argument turns on what impact more grammars are likely to have on social mobility – or even the pattern of mobility that's likely to result. For me, it comes down to the right of parents to educate their children as they see fit. That doesn't mean I think anything goes. There are some things that all taxpayer-funded schools should teach. But provided schools meet these basic standards, the state should not be allowed to interfere. That means allowing all kinds of schools to flourish. If a parent on a modest income with an exceptionally bright child wants to give that child the best possible start in life by sending him or her to an academically selective school, they should be allowed to do so. It shouldn't be an opportunity that only rich parents can secure for their children.
The problem with most critics of grammar schools is that they want to treat children as commodities that the state is entitled to move around to maximise social utility. Bright children, they believe, should be placed in schools where they're likely to have the most positive impact on other children, rather than schools where they're most likely to benefit themselves. In my view, the state should have no such power and as far as possible the wishes of parents should always come first.
A few weeks ago, I took part in a debate at the Cambridge Union about the future of the Labour Party. I argued that a combination of factors, such as the decline of Labour’s working class support, the election of Jeremy Corbyn and the party’s near universal backing of the EU, meant that Labour would struggle to survive in its present form. But I thought the crisis point would come after the next general election, not after the referendum. It didn’t occur to me that the party would be in its death throes by the end of the month.
I suppose I have to accept a small amount of responsibility for this. During Labour’s leadership election last year when Corbyn was still a rank outsider I helped to launch a Tories4Corbyn campaign, urging fellow Conservatives to take advantage of the party’s new membership rules whereby you could become a registered supporter for just £3 and vote for the 67-year-old old Communist. I don’t know how many did and my own efforts to join were foiled by a party hack. It probably had something to do with the reason I gave on the official application form: “To consign Labour to electoral oblivion.”
One of my co-conspirators – Paul Staines, the man behind Guido Fawkes – has suggested we resurrect Tories4Corbyn, but I’m not sure it’ll be necessary. At the time of writing, it’s not clear whether there’ll be another Labour leadership election, but the polls suggest he’d win about 60 per cent of the vote, just as he did last year. Several left-of-centre journalists have urged people to shell out £3 so they can save the party from Corbyn – it seems to be connected with their despair over losing the referendum – but I doubt they’ll be able to beat the Trots at their own game. For every Financial Times reader that becomes a registered supporter, at least three SWP activists will sign up. (To read more, click here.)
I’ve long thought Michael Gove would make a fantastic Prime Minister. He’s brilliant, brave and decent – all qualities that shone through during the EU referendum campaign.
Of his intellectual gifts, few can be in any doubt. Among his myriad talents, he has the ability to write a speech in his head in a nanosecond and then recite it, as if reading from an autocue. I’ve seen him do this many times, but the most memorable was when he came to speak to the pupils at the free school I helped set up and the first of its kind to be given a green light by Michael in his capacity as Secretary of State for Education. (To read more, click here.)