Prime Minister Theresa May has put forth a sweeping plan to improve education in the United Kingdom with a system based on merit, new grammar schools, and more accountability for higher education institutions.
In a speech that Downing Street has titled “Britain, the Great Meritocracy,” May spoke at the British Academy in Central London to expand on education’s role in improving social mobility and prosperity. Her first major domestic policy speech was marked by a commitment to offer more high-quality school places to extend opportunities throughout the whole of British society.
May said that despite 1.4 million more students in good or outstanding schools compared to 2010, 1.25 million children remain in schools that are considered failing — and May said that for Britain to progress, that gap must close:
“We are going to build a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few. A fundamental part of that is having schools that give every child the best start in life, regardless of their background.”
The mission will begin by encouraging the expansion of the grammar school sector. Grammar schools, considered by advocates to offer high-quality educational opportunity and by critics as being drivers of social inequality, will receive backing from the government after years of official stagnation. May’s proposal includes a provision that new and expanding grammar schools commit to offering places to low-income pupils to offer opportunity to those who may not be able to afford to live in the catchment area or pay tuition:
“For too long we have tolerated a system that contains an arbitrary rule preventing selective schools from being established – sacrificing children’s potential because of dogma and ideology. The truth is that we already have selection in our school system – and its selection by house price, selection by wealth. That is simply unfair.”
New or expanding grammars will have additional options to establish a new, non-selective free school, create or sponsor a feeder school in a low-income area, or sponsor an underperforming non-selective academy.
Universities are part of the plan as well; institutions that charge higher fees will be expected to either set up a new school or sponsor an existing school. May said that the expertise of universities should be harnessed to raise standards and increase opportunity earlier on. May cited several examples of successful university-school partnerships, such as a 2015 University of Birmingham initiative to create a secondary school. It quickly became one of the city’s most sought-after schools, with 1,237 applications for 150 places in Year 7 and sixth form.
May also announced her support for faith schools and committed to reducing the barriers for their opening and operation:
“Britain has a long history of faith schools delivering outstanding education. They already account for around a third of all mainstream schools in England. They are popular with parents and significantly more likely than other schools to be rated by Ofsted as good or outstanding.”
The proposal encourages broad cooperation across the entire education sector, with May stating that independent schools, grammar schools, state schools, and universities must work together to leverage their relative strengths to create a pipeline of quality education that is available to all:
“I want Britain to be the world’s great meritocracy – a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow.”