DUP hints at support for grammar school reforms
Theresa May's hopes of pushing her grammar school reforms through the Commons have been boosted after Northern Ireland's largest party signalled its support.
Sammy Wilson, the Democratic Unionist Party's education spokesman, urged the Prime Minister to ignore the "barrage of criticism" aimed at her desire to roll out a new generation of selective schools.
He added that two-thirds of people canvassed on grammar schools back an extension as he sought assurances from Education Secretary Justine Greening that she will not be deterred by the "siren voices" of those who oppose them.
The Government believes new grammar schools will help give pupils from poorer backgrounds the same academic opportunities as their richer counterparts, although Tory MPs are among those who have voiced opposition to the idea.
Mrs May's administration has a slender majority in the Commons, meaning only a handful of her MPs voting against the proposals could scupper them.
Support from the DUP's eight MPs would strengthen the Government's hand when it comes to parliamentary votes, with First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster acknowledging last week that there are "some synergies" between the DUP and the Tories.
Ms Foster and DUP representatives have already met Mrs May amid speculation about the level of support the party will give the Tories in the Commons.
Speaking during education question time, Mr Wilson dropped further hints about where the DUP's loyalties lie on grammar schools.
He asked Ms Greening: "Are you encouraged that of those who have been canvassed on the issue, two-thirds are supportive of the Prime Minister's policy of increasing social mobility for those from poorer backgrounds through the provision of increased grammar schools?
"And will you give an assurance that you will not be deterred by the siren voices or the barrage of criticism of this policy by those who are ideologically opposed to the policy even though they benefited from grammar school education themselves?"
Ms Greening replied: "You set out the situation very clearly and as you point out, for children on free school meals in particular, grammars are able to close the attainment gap because the progress those children make is double those of their better-off classmates.
"Now (Labour) wants to close that opportunity down, we want to level it up. That's the difference."
Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner asked Ms Greening to explain how much has been spent on "trying to find any facts" to support the policy of segregated schools.
She added: "Spending public money on policy without any evidential basis is simply wasting it.
"When you last came to this House you could not cite a single piece of evidence that would improve social mobility.
"Have you found any since?"
Ms Greening replied: "Well, a lot of what you said is incorrect."
The Tory frontbencher pointed to a report from the Sutton Trust, which she said set out the improved attainment of children in receipt of free school meals in grammar schools.
Ms Greening went on to Ms Rayner: "I think it's totally untenable to set out your concerns over grammar schools while resolutely being opposed to any kind of consultation document that looks at how we should reform grammar schools."
Earlier, Tory MP Heidi Allen (South Cambridgeshire) warned Ms Greening grammar schools is not a priority compared to the need to introduce a fairer funding formula for schools.
She said: "Given the mixed views in grammar schools and the huge piece of work that will be required to ensure that no child is left behind - because certainly that is my fear - can you please explain to me how that can possibly be of higher priority than fixing the flawed funding model that has seen thousands of children seriously underfunded for decades in counties like mine?"
Ms Greening said she wanted to develop the funding formula with the Government replying to a consultation on the issue "shortly".
She added: "We also need to challenge ourselves to look at how we can have more good school places, particularly in parts of the country where there still aren't enough - and particularly for disadvantaged students.
"We need to get on with both of those pieces of work."
Labour's Lucy Powell, a former shadow education secretary, warned against funding cuts for nursery schools.
Ms Powell said this type of school offers "real social mobility", with more than 98% of them rated good or outstanding and based in the most-deprived areas.
She said: "Their funding is now putting their ongoing viability at risk. Shouldn't you be better focusing on their continued attainment rather than grammar schools?"
Ms Greening, in her reply, said: "I disagree with your characterisation of us cutting funding. That's simply not correct."