What do you think about grammar school expansion? The chances are, you have a view. For a long while now it’s been a potent issue that has been parked on the fringes of the UK’s political landscape, like a long-dormant volcano. This week, it began to billow smoke again.
That’s because the Government’s Green Paper includes eye-catching proposals for grammar school expansion in England. The motives for these proposals are unimpeachable. Theresa May, I know, shares my absolute passion for social mobility. She wants young people to achieve their potential regardless of their background, and she’s absolutely right to want to turbocharge efforts on this front. It’s the single biggest reason I came into politics.
But as Cheltenham’s MP I have made clear to the Government that it needs to tread extremely carefully here. What’s right for (say) Manchester may well not be right for Cheltenham. This policy will only work if there is a profound respect and acknowledgement of local circumstances. A one-size-fits-all approach, especially if it lacks local support, will falter.
That’s because unlike some parts of the country, Cheltenham’s local comprehensive schools are conspicuously strong, and getting stronger still. All our secondaries are now rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, and the flagship academies programme is continuing to drive standards up. It means that young people are being offered excellent academic opportunities close to home. If the balance between comprehensives and grammar schools is radically disturbed, and too many of the brightest pupils are creamed off, it may make it more difficult to sustain a rigorous academic culture for the majority that remain. That in turn would be bad for social mobility.
You see, Cheltenham is not like some parts of the country where as many as 50% of children do not have access to a good or outstanding school. There, different considerations apply. There I would be first in the queue for new selective schools that could bring opportunities for driven, working class, kids that couldn’t otherwise get them. But let’s not compare apples with pears.
In other news, I am delighted to welcome a significant win in the war on grot spots! One of my top targets has been the shabby tarmac infills which make our high street look an unsightly mess. After persistent lobbying of the County Council, it’s great news that repair works are now scheduled to start on 26 September. Let’s make Cheltenham look its best!