Tory leadership latest: Sunak says yes to return of grammar schools

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Watch: Rishi Sunak would back the return of grammar schools

Conservative leadership candidate Rishi Sunak has said he would back the return of grammar schools, during a hustings with rival Liz Truss.

Asked by host Nick Ferrari whether he supported their return, the former chancellor said: “Yes.”

But he added “there’s lots we can do with the school system as we have it”.

It’s unlawful to open new grammars in England – state schools which select on ability – but existing ones can expand, and around 176,000 pupils attend one.

After the debate, Mr Sunak’s team said he would expand existing grammar schools in “wholly selective areas”, and will maintain commitments under the Selective School Expansion Fund.

That scheme funds the expansion of certain state schools which select by ability, subject to certain conditions.

Meanwhile, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has backed Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in the contest, calling her “authentic, honest and experienced”.

Grammar schools began to be replaced by comprehensive schools – which don’t select by ability – in the 1960s.

Under law no new grammar schools can be opened, and no new schools can select pupils by their grades.

But more children have attended grammar schools in recent years, with existing schools still allowed to expand to accommodate more pupils.

After saying he supported Mr Sunak the return of grammar schools, Mr Sunak said: “I believe in educational excellence, I believe education is the most powerful way we can transform people’s lives.

“But I also think there’s lots we can do with the school system as we have it.”

“Now what Michael Gove did several years ago [by expanding free schools and academies] was transformative.

“And Michael took on some vested interests, challenged consensus, brought in some reforms that mean that millions of our children now are better off.

“But that’s a Conservative way to do it. It’s not about throwing more money at the problem, it’s about reforming the system to get better outcomes. And that’s what I would do with education as well.”

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Watch: ‘I will get Northern Powerhouse Rail built’ – Liz Truss

While Ms Truss wasn’t asked about grammar schools, she previously suggested she would lift the ban while speaking to Conservative MPs, Sky News reported.

  • Mr Sunak denied flip-flopping on scrapping VAT on energy bills – a measure he now supports
  • Denied back-stabbing former Prime Minister Boris Johnson
  • Said Margaret Thatcher was his favourite former PM
  • Meanwhile, Ms Truss repeated her pledge to deliver the Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme in full
  • She also reiterated that she does not support windfall taxes – and supports single sex toilets in schools
  • On a lighter note, she said she was “completely horrified” by Love Island and turned it off within 10 minutes of watching it with her daughter

This is the first time we’ve seen the candidates in front of members.

Rishi Sunak is still fighting for his economic strategy. He is determined to try and persuade Conservatives that it is more sensible and will deliver tax cuts on a more sustainable footing.

But he faced some tough questions too; had he flip-flopped on VAT cuts on energy bills? Had he stabbed Boris Johnson in the back? It wasn’t always an easy night for Sunak.

For Liz Truss, this felt like a smoother evening. She drew heavily on her background growing up in Leeds to appeal to the audience – and won a lot of applause for some of her answers.

She’s promised members in the north of England that she will build the full Northern Powerhouse Rail, after the government scaled-back its plans last year.

She also said she would not introduce a windfall tax if she was prime minister – despite the high profits of energy companies. She reckons it sends the wrong message to the world.

These hustings really matter because they are a chance to appeal to Tory members directly. Remember, they’ll decide who the next Conservative leader and prime minister is.

Truss’s campaign team are likely to remain the happier tonight after the audience reaction.

Ms Truss, who spent her school years in Leeds, said it was “fantastic” to return to her old stomping ground.

She said she learned “grit, determination and straight-talking” from Yorkshire, calling it a useful skill as “we face a huge global economic crisis”.

Speaking to voters, said she wanted to “channel the spirit of Don Revie” – a former Leeds United and England manager – because “we need to win”.

She said by backing her, the Conservatives could win against Keir Starmer’s Labour, who she called “a patronising plastic patriot”.

Meanwhile, Mr Wallace – who at one point was seen as one of the front-runners in the leadership contest – has become the latest frontbencher to throw his weight behind Ms Truss, telling The Sun that she has the “integrity” to take on the role.

Mr Wallace said that while Ms Truss was “not running a highly polished Hollywood production leadership campaign,” she “knows how to govern”.

He said: “Her experience goes from running the finances of this country all the way through to Britain on the foreign stage.

“The world’s more anxious than it’s ever been, I think it’s more insecure than it was a decade ago and Liz Truss understands that.”