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The Mandate of Grammar

What mandate does Theresa May have to implement more grammar schools?

The expansion of exclusion would not normally gain plaudits from the people. When Theresa May set forth her plans to allow almost any school, be it ‘good enough’ to become a grammar, she did so on the back of a cultural surge. The ‘people’ are no longer those that Blair and Cameron sought to coddle and appease with third ways, hoodie hugs, gay marriages and humanitarian interventions, but rather swathes of spooky suburban types, fuelled by resentment, identity, and that ever malleable weapon: history.

Although grammars, by definition, only benefitted a small share of this demographic, their resonance is massive. They allowed the best and brightest to succeed. They allowed kids with unspectacular backgrounds to rival Etonians and their ilk. Without the grammars, we have returned to a situation where many of the most important figures in our public world come from the most privileged of backgrounds. This makes those ‘normal people’ foam at the teeth. The ban on new grammar schools can effectively appear as the elites tossing away the ladder that let plebs joust with them for power.

Of course, in truth, this is mostly popular mythology: grammars disproportionately benefited the middle classes from well to do areas and you still get non-privately educated human beings doing great things in Britain. Indeed, The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that “amongst high achievers, those who are eligible for free school meals or who live in poorer neighbourhoods are significantly less likely to go to a grammar school”.

That said, people segregate themselves into exclusive bubbles anyway: May rightly points out that house prices are prohibitive and lead to some catchment areas of some school’s being harder to access than others. But Grammars do not, alone, solve this issue, as Andreas Scheiler, the education (whisper it: )expert for the OECD, pointed out: academic selection engenders ‘social selection’ and the benefits of grammars are ‘dramatically overplayed.’

But for me, the actual debate is less interesting than the reason it has come about. From where did this idea come from? And why does Theresa May think it apt to push it now? The total lack of self-doubt exhibited by our new Prime Minister is troubling: from where does she get this conviction that her own rose-tinted will should be extolled on an entire nation?

She has no mandate. The Conservative party election manifesto, bastion of sincerity as it usually is, made no mention of expanding selective education and she is only prime minister because the Conservatives won the election last year. She has no mandate beyond that of her party and yet many of the senior figures in the Tory party last May, not least David Cameron, were firmly against the re-expansion of selective state schools.

Yet her decision feels, along with allowing more faith schools, like it is part of the same cultural surge that took the UK out of the European Union, the same denial of ‘mainstream’ reason. It is from this unspoken mandate, that of ‘Brexit means Brexit’, that she gains her confidence.

When Corbyn challenged her during PMQs to name one expert who backed her beliefs on the matter, she could not mutter one. But that only helps her position, she now leads those who were ‘sick of experts’, who are tired of being talked down to. Their convictions, earned through experience or hearsay, quite naturally carry more weight than the outcome of some think tank’s study.

The referendum was effectively a whole new election. Her mandate comes from the unspoken clump of beliefs that make up most people’s accepted idea of a ‘leaver’. The logic behind this switch is unsettling. The vote to leave the EU had no concrete set of policies behind it, just a panoply of groups and intentions all vying for attention. But the stereotypes won through regardless: Brexiteers are elderly, vaguely xenophobic suburbanites disappointed by recent history, now waging war on the establishment. It is from this vague and undemocratic idea of a voter that May gains her mandate—and that is unequivocally wrong.
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