Private schools will have to do more to help the state sector if they want to keep their tax breaks, Theresa May has said, as she claimed her major changes to education would make Britain a “great meritocracy”.
The prime minister has put creating new grammar schools at the heart of her plans for a substantial shakeup of the education system.
In well-trailed proposals, she said parents would be able to set up selective free schools, existing state schools would be allowed to convert in the right circumstances and current grammars permitted to expand.
But in a speech in central London, May also set out new proposals to force independent schools to contribute more to the state sector if they want to keep the charitable status that brings sizeable tax advantages.
She said major private schools would have to sponsor or set up new state schools and smaller institutions would need to provide direct teaching support or put their leaders on the board of state schools.
“Most of the major public schools started out as the route by which poor boys could reach the professions. The nature of their intake may have changed today – indeed these schools have become more and more divorced from normal life,” May said.
“Between 2010 and 2015 their fees rose four times faster than average earnings growth, while the percentage of their pupils who come from overseas has gone up by 33% since 2008. But I know that their commitment to giving something back to the wider community remains.”
She also set out a series of measures intended to ensure that new and expanded grammars make places available to children from disadvantaged backgrounds and help improve standards in non-selective schools. This could involve taking a proportion of pupils from lower-income backgrounds or opening a “feeder” primary school in disadvantaged areas.
“This is not a proposal to go back to a binary model of grammars and secondary moderns, but to build on our increasingly diverse schools system,” May said in her speech at the British Academy in London.
“It is not a proposal to go back to the 1950s, but to look to the future, and that future I believe is an exciting one. It is a future in which every child should have access to a good school place. And a future in which Britain’s education system shifts decisively to support ordinary working-class families.”
After the speech in central London, the prime minister was forced to defend her controversial plans.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, has warned it could lead the UK to “fail as a nation” if there is a system where only the top 15-20% of pupils get a superior education.
But May insisted there would be no return to the “binary” system of grammars and secondary moderns of old, even though children would still either pass or fail exams to enter selective schools at age 11 and upwards.
She declined to say how many grammars she would ideally like to see and ducked a question asking whether the government would be producing evidence from academics or Whitehall officials showing that the policy would improve educational attainment for all.
“We are not setting a quota for the number of grammar schools,” she said. “This is about what parents want locally, the institutions that come forward, groups of parents who want to set up a new free school. This is about opening the system to a greater diversity. It is also about building on the reforms we have already started which have been showing success in improving quality of education.
May said she wanted “a diversity of provision for every child” so they could receive an education that was right for them.
The prime minister’s move to expand grammar schools is likely to prove controversial with the Conservative modernisers she banished to the backbenches, as well as teaching unions and education campaigners.
David Cameron said in 2007 that he thought the debate on grammars was “pointless”, because “parents fundamentally don’t want their children divided into sheep and goats at the age of 11”.
May delivered an apparent dig at Cameron as she criticised politicians who supported a ban on grammars despite having benefited from privileged educations themselves.
She defended the plans on Friday by highlighting potential measures to mitigate the risk that poor children – who tend to be underrepresented in existing grammars – were relegated to sink schools as selection expanded.
Options in a paper expected to be published on Monday will include:
- forcing new selective schools to take a minimum proportion of pupils from lower-income households
- requiring them to establish a new non-selective free school, or a primary feeder school in an area with a high density of lower-income households
- requiring them to sponsor an existing underperforming, non-selective academy school.
May’s plans will form part of a wider package of education reforms, including an attempt to narrow the gap between universities and the schools system.
Universities that want to raise tuition fees for students will be obliged to make their expertise available to younger learners, by setting up a new school or taking over an existing failing school, for example.
Labour said May’s claim to be creating a great meritocracy through grammar schools was “utterly ludicrous”.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow cabinet minister without portfolio, said: “The prime minister can talk all she wants about delivering for everyone but what matters is what she does, and her actions reveal the Tories’ true colours: working in the interests of the few while everyone else is left behind.”
This article was written by Rowena Mason Deputy political editor, for theguardian.com on Friday 9th September 2016 14.51 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010