Will Theresa May’s support for grammar schools help or hinder schools sharing in Northern Ireland?

Now we know why Theresa May has been so vague about Brexit. All along she has been preoccupied with – grammar schools and lifting restrictions of faith schools especially Catholic schools!

Schools will be allowed to select children on the basis of ability at 14 and 16 as well as 11, Theresa May said today, as she outlined the biggest reform of the education system in 50 years.

The prime minister presented her plans to allow new and expanded grammar schools, as well as existing comprehensive schools in England, to start selecting by ability.

Mrs May mounted a passionate defence of selection in education, saying that it exists at the moment for the wealthy.

Starting a major attempt to convince the public and parliament to reverse the thrust of education policy since the late 1960s, when the tide turned against selection, she said: “99 per cent of existing selective schools are rated good or outstanding – and 80 per cent are outstanding, compared with just 20 per cent of state schools overall.

“So we help no one – not least those who can’t afford to move house or pay for a private education – by saying to parents who want a selective education for their child that we won’t let them have it.

“There is nothing meritocratic about standing in the way of giving our most academically gifted children the specialist and tailored support that can enable them to fulfil their potential. In a true meritocracy, we should not be apologetic about stretching the most academically able to the very highest standards of excellence.”

She insisted that there would be no return to the 11-plus or a “binary” choice between grammars and secondary moderns. This was “unfounded” because there is a diverse school share, from free schools sponsored by universities to faith schools.

Pupils in non-selective schools should also be able to join grammars for specific subjects or specialisms. Some £50 million a year is available to support the expansion of good or existing grammars.

. Northern Ireland doesn’t have to follow suit of course. But DUP Education minister Peter Weir’s decision to lift the ban on primary schools preparing for secondary transfer tests goes with the grain of grammars’ increasing popularity in spite of greater competition from non-grammars and the official disapproval of the Catholic bishops. The question now is, how will ambitions for schools sharing be affected?  A read across isn’t automatic  but if consolidation of the existing pattern of secondary education take priority, sharing  which is still in its infancy could be affected. And that would be a great pity.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London