It was with great pleasure that I wrote the following on Twitter, earlier today: “Totally delightful to be able to RT Labour MPs who, for once, are united in praise of
@jeremycorbyn – this is MY Labour Party. #PMQs “
Every word is true. Labour might be drawing to the end of an uncomradely leadership election but supporters and opponents united to praise Jeremy Corbyn for his statesmanlike decimation of Mrs May’s plan to bring back grammar schools.
In comparison, our second unelected prime minister was forlorn, amateurish and embarrassing. I mean, what kind of politician answers “I wonder if it is possible for her this morning, within the quiet confines of this House, to name any educational experts who back her proposals on new grammar schools and more selection” with “We have seen 1.4 million more children in good or outstanding schools. That is because of the changes that this Government introduced: free schools and academies, head teachers being put in charge of schools, and more choice for parents”?
Many of us would debate the accuracy of her claims, and none of her response actually addressed the question – as Mr Corbyn pointed out adroitly by quoting a teacher named John who had told him the education system and teachers had made great progress in improving the quality and delivery of the curriculum – without needing to step back in time to the pre-history that grammar schools represent.
He went on to point out: “In Kent, which has a grammar school system, 27 per cent of pupils on free school meals get five good GCSEs compared with 45 per cent in London. We are all for spreading good practice, but why does the Prime Minister want to expand a system that can only let children down?”
In her response, Mrs May contradicted herself. Having just talked up the increase in the number of children at good or outstanding schools, she then claimed reviving grammars would “provide good school places for the 1.25 million children in schools that are failing or inadequate or that need improvement”. Why has her government’s current education policy not helped them already? Could it have something to do with the form of selection that already exists in her multi-tier school system, where the poorest always come out worst?
She said the “attainment gap” in grammar schools is “virtually zero”. Without quibbling over what she means by that, what is the “attainment gap” between grammar schools and the rest? And how is selection for grammar schools supposed to be fair? Doesn’t she know that the poorest pupils generally do worst at school? So aren’t grammar schools another chance for the rich to build up their unfair advantage over the poor?
For Mrs May to cap this by saying, “The right hon. Gentleman believes in equality of outcome; I believe in equality of opportunity. He believes in levelling down; we believe in levelling up,” is topping nonsense with nonsense.
Referring to a disastrous speech on Monday, when education secretary Justine Greening, discussing the plan to reintroduce grammar schools, announced a series of measures designed to mitigate their harmful effect on education, Mr Corbyn pointed out: “New grammar schools may be required to set up feeder primary schools in poorer areas. Will the children in those feeder primaries get automatic places at grammar school or will they be subject to selection?”
By way of response, Mrs May said there is selection in the current school system – by house price. But didn’t former education secretary Michael Gove introduce such selection when he introduced Free Schools, which can choose to ignore children living nearby in order to accept those from wealthier backgrounds on their rolls?
She didn’t answer the question, so Mr Corbyn asked it in a different way: Would existing grammars, such as those in Kent and Buckinghamshire, be instructed to widen their admissions policies?
Now shown up as avoiding the issue, Mrs May showed how rattled she was by giving ground – her government was consulting on diverse ways of providing education – and by repeating her comment about 1.25 million children in schools that are not good or outstanding. Worst of all, she offered an open goal to Mr Corbyn when she said: “Members of the Labour party will take the advantages of a good education for themselves and pull up the ladder behind them for other people.”
Mr Corbyn took the shot and scored: “This is not about pulling up ladders; it is about providing a ladder for every child.”
That was the end of this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions as far as Theresa May was concerned; the rest was a formality that only made matters worse.
Mr Corbyn’s next question quoted his former prime ministerial sparring partner, David Cameron, but Mrs May could not answer it – and This Writer is sure this will have fuelled speculation that Cameron was right and she does not understand the issues well enough to dictate policy on them.
Instead, she tried to divert attention to the employment figures, announced today, that showed more people in work than ever before. May we assume she had some scripted lines about that, and wanted to use them? Tough. Mr Corbyn brushed the attempt off: “The problem is that there are now almost a million of them on zero-hours contracts who do not know what they are going to be paid from one week to the other.”
With his last question, he came to the point – and didn’t hold back: “Is not all this proof that the Conservative party’s Green Paper addresses none of the actual crises facing our schools system: a real-terms cut in the schools budget; half a million pupils in supersize schools; a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention; a rising number of unqualified teachers in classrooms; and vital teaching assistants losing their jobs? Is this not the case of a Government heading backwards, to a failed segregation for the few and second-class schooling for the many? Can we not do better than this?”
No. Mrs May clearly cannot.
Instead, the prime minister launched into a poorly-judged rant on the likelihood that Mr Corbyn may not be the Leader of the Opposition when the next round of Questions to the Prime Minister (technically the correct title for PMQs). “I must say that he has made his mark,” she declaimed. “He wants coal mines without mining them, submarines without sailing them, and he wants to be Labour leader without leading them.”
But it is more or less agreed by now that Mr Corbyn will indeed be leading the Labour Party after the results of the election on September 24 – so her scripted line fell flat. Actually, it was worse than that – it fell prostrate.
And Mr Corbyn sat down with the victory, having hardly raised a sweat.
“Uniting Labour and splitting the Tories.” Harsh criticism from the BBC’s Tory-loving Laura Kuenssberg.
It seems the wrong political party has spent the summer holding a leadership contest. Is it too late for the Tories to do a U-turn and scrape the barrel for something better?
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