British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech at the British Academy in London on September 9, 2016. British Prime Minister Theresa May set out bold plans on Friday for more selection in schools, raising a deeply divisive issue two months into a premiership that has so far been defined by Brexit. The Conservative leader announced the end of a two-decade ban on new grammar schools, which only accept the brightest pupils, as part of a package of reforms intended to build a "truly meritocratic Britain". / AFP / POOL / Nick Ansell Image Credit: AFP

Did I miss the moment – perhaps it happened over the summer — when Nigel Farage was installed as leader of Britain? I ask because a man who has serially failed to get elected to the House of Commons seems to be running the show. Not only will parliament spend the next four years, at least, making real Farage’s dream of a British exit from the European Union (EU), Britons now know it will also be consumed with another Farage obsession: The return of the grammar school.

No doubt Britons should brace themselves for legislation, bringing back “proper dress” for the theatre, restoring imperial weights and measures and making the London tube’s Circle line a circle again (to take three items that all appeared in the United Kingdom Independence Party’s 2010 election manifesto).

It may be hoodies and huskies that we remember, but former prime minister David Cameron defined himself early by forcing Conservatives to move on two emblematic questions. He insisted they stop “banging on about Europe” and abandon their nostalgic longing for grammar schools. His successor has now decreed her government will devote itself to little else.

For a while, there was a school of optimistic, Remain-voting thought that saw Prime Minister Theresa May as a secret ally. It held that she was delaying Article 50 because she privately knows Brexit is bonkers; by appointing her three Brexiteers — Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox — she was setting them up to fail. She would eventually persuade her party and the country to see sense and accept a Brexit that didn’t quite mean Brexit. In this rose-coloured view, the grammar school promise was a lump of pre-emptive red meat, lobbed early to the Tory backbenches to placate them for the European disappointment to come.

But now that we’ve heard the speech, her first policy address as PM, we should junk that view. It’s time to accept that May means it, at least when it comes to education. She’s a believer. Note that back in 2000, when she was shadow education secretary, she was sticking up for grammars, praising them for providing “opportunity irrespective of family means or background”. With May, we should probably get used to taking things at face value: There may be no hidden meanings. Which is not to say that May’s move today was without politics. It had plenty and not all of it designed to tickle the tummy of Tory backwoodsmen. There was a renewed play for those Ed Miliband called the squeezed middle, Britons not poor enough to get all-encompassing state help but “just managing” to get by, on a household income of between £16,000 (Dh77,984) and £21,000 a year. Strikingly, May referred nine times to “ordinary, working class people”, embracing an explicit language of class always avoided by former prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (they preferred “hard-working families”.) And though the grammars proposal got all the attention, May announced other steps aimed at boosting meritocracy, including demands that private schools do more for the deprived if they are to keep their advantageous tax status — an idea lifted directly from Miliband’s 2015 manifesto.

Any defence of May would note all this and add that the Tory desire to revive grammar schools is usually well intentioned. It might rest on nostalgia, but it’s nostalgia for an era when social mobility was real, a period from the 1940s to the 1960s when doors were opened to bright working-class children that had previously been closed. True, this misreads the history somewhat: Social mobility was expanding for myriad reasons then, from the explosion in white-collar jobs to the equalising effect of the war. But to hanker for such an expansion in life chances is not, in itself, to be condemned.

So let’s assume that those who advocate the return of grammar schools do so in good faith. The argument rests on two questions. Is selection purely on academic merit desirable? And, if it is even possible? On the first, it’s always going to be hard for me to denounce selective education. It’s not the schooling my children are getting — as it happens, they’ve only ever gone to nonselective state schools — but it is the education I had, and benefited from, at a fee-paying school. Indeed, I am that rare creature in the London liberal commentariat: I send my children to state schools, but (occasionally) feel guilty about it — because I worry they might not be getting the opportunities I had. Paul Mason puts it well when, recalling his own experience in Bolton, he describes grammar schools as, at their best, “intellectual hothouses bringing working-class kids to the world of ideas and debate”.

I went to a London public school so the composition was different, but the hothouse bit, the ideas and debate, I recognise — and to pretend that had nothing to do with academic selection is dishonest. But the issue is not whether selection is good for those who get selected. The rawer problem is who gets chosen.

If Britons could be confident that every place in one of May’s new grammar schools went to a child whose parents could never afford to go private, or live near a top state school, that would be one thing. But we know it won’t be like that. We know it will be sharp-elbowed, affluent parents armed with cultural and social capital who will get their children in. Experience tells us there’s no such thing as a “tutor-proof” admission test, that prep schools will coach their pupils to pass, just as they’ve always done and do now.

Note that in the grammar schools that exist today in Britain, just 3 per cent of pupils are on free school meals, when Britain’s national average is 18 per cent. They are enclaves of the successful middle class. And this is not to condemn those parents, incidentally. One of the deformities of the British education debate is that it is conducted as if it were a matter of personal morality, judging parents for the ethics of their choice. But most human beings will always seek the very best education for their children and that’s perfectly natural. Rather than faulting and judging individual behaviour, Britain needs to devise a system that works for the collective good.

Which brings us to the second key problem with selection. Even if May somehow did achieve the impossible, and ensured admission went only to the brightest and most needy, that would still leave the matter of all those who do not get in. She insists that there will be no return to the “binary” choice of old, but there is no way around it. Selection means some are selected and some are not. Sure, she’ll ensure the non-grammars won’t be called secondary moderns. There’ll be some new, “inclusive” name for them. But everyone will know.

May says none of this will matter, because these days there’s such a range of schools in Britain, many of which are flourishing: Faith schools, academies and the like. But those schools have done well, in London especially — partly because there is no stigma attached to them, no question that they are for “rejects”. The proof comes in the presence of a good number of bright, committed pupils. But if the clever pupils in every town are creamed off, suddenly those other schools won’t look quite so shiny or appealing. There’ll be the grammar school and the rest, just as in the old days.

May is right to want a system where even the poorest child can get a world-class education. But no matter how rosy her memories, she’s looking in the wrong place.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Jonathan Freedland is a weekly columnist and writer for the Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and presents BBC Radio 4’s contemporary history series, The Long View. In 2014, he was awarded the Orwell special prize for journalism. He has also published eight books including six bestselling thrillers, the latest being The 3rd Woman.