Theresa May wants more selective schools, but she is also very selective in the way she uses language. Here are five words that reveal a lot.


The first is ‘selective’ itself. Take this sentence? “We help no one by saying to parents who want a selective education for their child that we won’t let them have it.”

Hold on. That would mean that any parent who wants a selective education for their child should have it.  But that cannot be. The clue is the word ‘selective’. It means schools select only some children. The best parents can do is put their kids into a selection process – one that typically picks out only around a quarter of applicants.

In an article headlined ‘My debt to grammar schools’, May told the Daily Mail “I want every child to have the kind of opportunities that I enjoyed.” But that can’t happen either – because not every child can be selected for grammar schools.

Education secretary Justine Greening even said every school in the country could be a grammar school. So what do you do with those who fail the 11-plus? Deport them presumably.

Because there is also a word for those who aren’t selected – which is ‘rejected’. But we didn’t hear that one from May or Greening.


May said the new system would not be ‘binary’. My dictionary says “binary” means “involving two things”.  If you have a test that divides kids into passers and failers, that sounds pretty binary to me.

Either the Prime Minister can’t figure this out – or, more worryingly, she thinks we can’t.


Here’s another word Mrs May uses in her own way – ‘gap’. She proudly pointed out that “the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils is reduced to almost zero for children in selective schools.”

That’s hardly a surprise, but the gap that matters is between the number of poor children (defined as those on free school meals) in the school system as a whole – 14.9% – and the number in grammar schools – 2.6%.  (That’s from House of Commons research this year.)

Mrs May wants to force grammars to take a proportion of their intake from poorer families. But again that’s the wrong metric to measure social mobility. You don’t measure the proportion of the people at the top who started at the bottom. You look at the proportion of the people at the bottom who get to the top. It’s a different sum with a much larger denominator – and much greater relevance.

Enough maths – here’s some English. Look at this question from a current 11+ revision website:

Find the letter which can be taken from the word Halve and put into the word Boat, leaving two proper words. You may not otherwise re-arrange the letters.        

Did you get it – you move the ‘l’ to get ‘have’ and ‘bloat’? But would you have known the word ‘bloat’ when you were 11? Who’s more likely to know it at that age – a middle class kid who was read to every bedtime – or a child from a tower block with a single parent who has barely read a book themselves?


And this gets to the nub of it. The speech was not really about children – but ‘families’ – and in particular “ordinary working-class families”. It wasn’t about what children need but what parents want.

So what chance for the kid whose parents don’t want anything much except a drink, a fix, a win on the horses, a week on parole – or just a bit of rest? Should education policy discriminate against those children and in favour of the children of “hard-working” families?

We can have a separate debate about which parents deserve state support, but don’t all children deserve a good education, regardless of who their parents are? And in fact shouldn’t the system make a disproportionate effort to reach out to kids who otherwise risk drifting into unemployment, unfulfillment, crime and benefit-dependency?

Mrs May pointed out that “There are still 1.25 million attending primary and secondary schools in England which are rated by Ofsted as requiring improvement or inadequate.”

So her answer is …? To create more novelty schools. We’ve already had faith schools, free schools, specialist schools, direct grant schools, grant maintained schools and academy schools. Now we get new selective schools and sponsored schools.

Why can’t we just have schools? Schools for everyone. And if 1.25 million are in struggling schools (which is probably because they have to deal with more challenging kids to start with) then why not fix those schools instead of screwing up the system even more?

Because this isn’t an education policy, it’s a political pitch – a sugar-coated sweetie dangled in front of parents to buy their votes. It will mean a few more kids get into new grammars; a lot more get rejected and demotivated; all-ability schools lose good pupils; private schools scoop up kids whose parents want to avoid the 11-plus; and struggling schools sink further.


One last word to challenge – ‘able’. It’s clear the government wants to select out those regarded as “academically able” – or ‘bright’. But what is a ‘bright’ kid?

People who failed the 11-plus include the author Michael Morpurgo, the actor Tom Baker and the playwright, John Godber.  Were they not ‘bright’? Of course they were, just not the right sort of ‘bright’.

11-plus style texts measure verbal and logical intelligence – the kind used to solve word puzzles and sums. This type of intelligence has been prized by the education system in the West for centuries – but there are those who say it’s much too narrow a concept.

Harvard’s Professor Howard Gardner says there are at least eight types of intelligence: verbal, logical, visual, musical, bodily/kinaesthetic, naturalistic, interpersonal and intrapersonal. The last two are broadly what are often called ‘people skills’.

He says “It’s great to have verbal and logical intelligence because most tests focus on that and as long as you stay in school, you think you’re smart. But if you ever walk out onto a highway, into the woods or into a farm you then find out that other intelligences are at least as important.”

Exactly. Farmers don’t do anagrams. Actors don’t need algebra. On the other hand, business leaders need interpersonal skills as much as the ability to crunch numbers.

By not getting this, not only are we denying opportunity to people whose intelligence is not the verbal-logical kind, but we’re advancing people who are sharp, but not always wise.

Maybe that is why we live in a world where we can send people into space but not end famines and wars.

I went to a grammar but was deeply aware that for every me there were three boys labelled failures at the local secondary modern. The two I knew best became a priest and a top 40 musician – they had talent but the test missed it.

We need a system that caters for all those who are ‘bright’ in all of the kaleidoscopic shades of brightness, not one that rewards children who can solve puzzles and rejects the rest. And that doesn’t mean eight types of school for eight types of intelligence. Everyone has their own unique blend of the different types of intelligence.

Here is something Theresa May said that I agree with 100%: “Every child is different … with different talents, different interests, different dreams. To help them realise their potential and achieve those dreams we need a school system with the capacity and capability to respond to what they need.” One might ask how.

Well here’s an idea – create a school in every neighbourhood that has the capacity and capability to help every child discover and develop their unique talents. You could call it ‘comprehensive’.  Now there’s a word Mrs May didn’t use once.

PS By the way, Mrs May’s “grammar” school, Holton Park, became a comprehensive when she was 15. Yes, the Prime Minister is in fact a comprehensive school success story.