The government’s plan to create new grammar schools risks distracting from education reforms and could undermine progress in improving schools, the former education secretary Nicky Morgan has told the Conservative conference.
Speaking at a fringe meeting about inequality in schools, Morgan, who was removed from the job by Theresa May in July, warned that a government department “only has so much bandwidth in terms of delivering reform”, and said grammars were an unnecessary diversion.
“For me, I do worry that a return to more selection risks undermining the progress that we have seen over the course of the last decade in our schools, by throwing something else into the education debate rather than focusing on every school offering an excellent education,” she said.
Morgan has previously spoken out against the plan announced by May last month to allow new grammars to open in England, existing ones to expand and other schools to convert to select pupils by academic ability.
The proposals received a mixed reception when they were unveiled as part of a wider consultative green paper on schools, with more than a dozen Conservative backbenchers expressing worry.
At the time, Morgan said it would be “difficult to support the proposals”. On Monday she expanded on her concerns, saying: “Is every child in this country entitled to an excellent academic education? For me the answer is yes. And that’s why I think that return to selection is not the right move at this time.”
Morgan said the country was “on the verge of real excellence in our education system”, with the chief schools inspector for England, Sir Michael Wilshaw, saying more than 80% of schools were now either good or outstanding.
Morgan said: “I know from my time as secretary of state that any government department only has so much bandwidth in terms of delivering of reform. If you say to officials, actually, we’re going to move from schools becoming more self-governing, working together, more collaboration, pushing up standards, delivering the Ebacc, to we’re going to throw something else into the system, which is what the green paper is doing, then you really risk undermining finishing a job of making sure every child in this country has access to an excellent education.
“I think, to a Conservative government, that is something that we should be aiming for.”
Morgan said her successor as education secretary, Justine Greening, would use her speech to the conference on Tuesday to unveil a new system to alleviate inequality in schools, called “social mobility areas”.
May has insisted that new grammars will not return England to a “binary” system of dividing pupils aged 11. Morgan, however, said she remained unsure how the new grammars would fit in.
“I think it’s a brave politician who predicts what happens with a green paper, and how there are going to be compromises,” she said.
Good schooling was all the more vital in the wake of the EU referendum result, Morgan added. “Post-June 23, if we’re going to have fewer people coming to work in this country, we’d better make sure everyone who leaves the education system is well-skilled, well-educated and prepared for the world of work in the 21st century.”
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