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Gove’s team clearly very defensive re free schools

Posted on 10 September 2011 | 8:09am

Very much in ‘partner of’ role, I went the other evening to the launch of School Wars, a book on the current battle for the future of education policy, written by Fiona’s fellow campaigner for comprehensive schools, Melissa Benn.

Melissa is a good writer and thoroughly nice person, so I overcame my general reluctance to attend Soho book launches, and went along. Her Dad Tony was there, looking a little bit more frail than the last time I saw him, but still pin-sharp when we sat in a corner to muse about diary writing.

The reception took place as the government was busy promoting the first tranche of so-called free schools. The numbers are small, well short of the hundreds Michael Gove had promised for the first wave of his revolution. The vast bulk of children will continue to go to good comprehensive schools, including the many academies introduced by the last government. But in part because free schools are new, in part because they are Gove’s baby, and in part because the vast majority of top media people opt for private education, it has been a doodle for them to get tame coverage, as it can all be used to run down the schools used by the many not the few.

It is also clear Gove feels rather defensive about it all. He took to the Evening Standard to write about the launch of free schools, but rather than promote what he believed in, he indulged in a somewhat petty, rather sexist, and hugely ironic dig at Melissa and Fiona. They must be doing something right to penetrate his skin.

His charge was that their criticism of free schools was somehow rendered illegitimate because they were well-connected and part of the media elite. Oh, and Melissa is entitled to call herself ‘The Hon…’. Let’s stop and wonder at the straightness of his face in saying this – that woud be Michael Gove, ex of The Times, the man who met Murdoch more often than Cameron. On the eve of Boris Johnson, he of Telegraphland, opening a school to be run by Toby Young, for whom no media appearance can be turned down so long as it allows him to show how much a part he is of the media elite.

The only thing I will say in defence of Gove is that the article was so bad he clearly didn’t write it himself. I may have disagreed with some of the things he wrote when at The Times, but he was a better writer than the one who appeared in The Standard. I fear he needs a new special adviser.

But the good news for those campaigning for the schools used by the many not the few was that it showed the extraordinary defensiveness of Gove’s team as they take forward their plans.

Finally on this subject, the right like to pray in aid the fact that Peter Hyman, a former colleague of mine in TB’s team, is also starting up a free school. A couple of points on that – Peter does so without feeling he has to run down and denigrate others. And he has, post politics, a record in education to build on.

Sorry not to be able to put up the link either to Melissa’s book or the article Gove ‘wrote’. I am working on the iPad and have yet to learn how to go backwards and forwards between different things on the screen. But hey, until a few years ago I couldn’t send an email. Education, education, education.

  • Michael Gove and David Cameron seem to be applauding the diversity of the Free Schools that have arisen. Indeed this seems to be a key feature of the policy. What happens when the original sponsors of a Free School move on? When Toby Young is bored with his school because his children are older, what ethos does the school adopt? Do the governors look for another Toby Young or does the school move in a different direction? Foreign magnates seem to enjoy the power from buying and selling premier league football clubs. Is the Free School movement a cheaper alternative for those with smaller wallets? I dislike the idea of Russian oligarchs buying English football passion. Unelected nobodies controlling significant chunks of our education system seems equally distasteful.

  • Mark Wright

    ‘Empowered’ parents pulling the strings of their very own school because, of course, they know best. The very idea makes me shudder.

    Message to wannabe Toby Young’s (surely there can’t be such a thing?):

    Either get a job in education yourself if it’s so important to you or f**k off and leave it to the professionals.

    • Chris lancashire

      That’s why we’re in the mess we’re in Mark. Left it to “the professionals” too long.

  • smileoftdecade

    Am I so amazingly perceptive? – I really don’t think so, but Gove struck me as an untrustworthy weasel before he double flipped his second home to keep £13K of cheated expenses and then threatened the Telegraph with legal action if they exposed this…
    It amazes me that he gets the sort of “well OK we know he’s a weasel but we will give him more power” treatment that Murdoch got…

  • Olli Issakainen

    According to Melissa Benn´s School Wars the modern British school system is a perplexing place: both public and private, egalitarian and elitist.
    The comprehensive ideal has been recently in retreat losing ground to less inclusive forms of state education and private schools.
    But Britain needs a more equal and uniform state system.
    Perhaps the private schools should have been abolished in the egalitarian postwar years.
    So the notion of schooling as a form of social sorting rather than mass enlightenment has survived.
    The first comprehensive school opened in 1949. But from the mid 60s and the late 70s it has been thought that classroom egalitarianism has gone too far.
    Ms Benn´s ideal is a mix of the old, the new and the foreign.
    She mentions Finland which tops international test tables. Almost everyone in Finland attends their neighbourhood school.
    Instead of anticipated 100 free schools Britain now only has 24.
    For some this means classics and nine-to-five days.
    Free schools are state schools funded by taxpayers.
    Toby Young is right when he speaks about character. Richard Reeves has also written on the subject.
    Public schools have a lot to teach the state about character building. This issue should not be only a rightwing obsession.
    Nick Clegg has said that free schools must be open to all. They must reduce social segregation.
    Independent schools within the state sector should never be allowed to run for profit.
    Britain´s school system is not fit for the 21st century. Free schools have been influenced by the Swedish system.
    But in Finland every child is entitled to a high-quality education which develops potential to the full.
    Why not copy us?   

  • Alastair I sent a letter to Fiona and co through the LSN site yesterday.  Please can you make sure she looks at it.  There’s a lot of important stuff in it.

  • If there is anyone reading this who is concerned about what Gove is doing, please register on and join the groups ‘UK Education’ and ‘The Free School Resource Group’ and read and join in the conversations.  Gove’s Top Trumps in UK Education (in UK Education) is a good place to start.

  • Olli could you tell us a bit more about the Finnish system?

    Is it a planned state system?

    Why do you think it works so well?

    There are obvious ways in which countries where the population is more dispersed are much easier to manage education in.

  • Gove was an absolute point blank barrier to my voting Conservative.   I was in an audience for Any Questions when he was still a Murdoch Group journalist (2004? – instead of the £1250/hour part time Murdoch Group journalist he is reported to have then become).

    At that stage he still has no qualms whatsoever about expounding on his personal deeply held views that all the problems with education and society were based in us not punishing the baddies enough.  And he did it with such eloquence it was deeply, deeply sinister and scary.

  •  Have you been to education consultations where the politicians have turned up and made it clear that in this new enlightened age their views have not place too Mark?

  • The O’Neill

    Why not indeed, Olli …

  • MicheleB

    I was keen for my kid to go to a secondary that taught Latin but I’m worried about a school where it is compulsory and am sure that some school leaders who have that obsession for the language might have covert reasons. 

    There is more than one group of parents I am quite sure would not apply o.b.o. their children as they would not want them learning Latin, freely or not.

  • Olli Issakainen

    Our system is based on comprehensive school common to all. We have only a handful of private schools like Steiner schools and religious schools.
    We have quality education with equal opportunity. We do not waste talent.
    We have social market economy with welfare society.
    Because of tough climate and limited natural resources we have invested a lot in education. Teacher profession is highly valued here.
    Teachers are well-trained.
    Before the comprehensive school there is one-year pre-school. Comprehensive school is nine-year (7-16). Then there is academic or vocational education for three years.
    According to PISA tests Finland has the best school system in the world.
    Because of the Scandinavian values of equality and solidarity Finland has also been ranked as the most prosperous country in the world, and also the best place to live.  

  • Thanks Olli,

    I’ve just instructed my husband to go and hook up the Sibelius on the reel-to-reel and to turn it up loud.


  • David Hardie

    We will only ever each a point of a classless society when private schools are closed down.
    No ifs. No buts. No maybes.
    Private schools and the networking which is a part of them by defacto is what keeps the poor, poor and the rich, rich.

  • Pete Blasdale

    Alastair, I read that Jimmy Carter still lives in the same house as he did before he was president…He blames the Iraq war on TB as much as GB..
    Its in the Guardian.
    What a nice humble person he seems to be.
    Where has all that gone? I only ask.
    Go the All Blacks, and well done England for struggling thru against Argentina.

  • Ehtch

    Get’s me these politicians of a certain colour trying to reinvent the wheel. You have your education, with either your parentals/scholarship pays, or the state pays. Coming out with buzz words to the press doesn’t change it. How many different ways can your grandmother suck eggs, for gods sake? A wheel is a wheel.

  • MicheleB

    Finland also has very low levels of immigration and far fewer children with another language as their mother tongue.

    Self sufficiency might be admirable in some ways but not all.

    Education is also compulsory to age 19.

  • MicheleB

    I’ve read that the average pay-off to NHS employees forced in to private PCT-type organisations was £40k and that’s not counting the obligation via pension rights that I’d imagine those people left to mature in their present funds.

    There are bound also to be redundancies in ‘normal’ schools now, no matter how short-lived this top down experiment is.

  • Whatifwhatif

    Further to my last and according to this:-

    it seems obvious that the countries that do best in PISA tests (ie: by their very nature, only test-able qualities) are those with little ‘disturbance’ to one of any school’s main subjects …. that being their own mother tongue and, stemming from that, reading skills … a basic requisite .

    My other post, about Latin, hints (covertly?) about the non-stated exclusion that can also be practised by tactical inclusion of certain syllabus subjects that will be of no interest (and even abhorrence) to some parents.

    Perhaps a nation’s immigration policies have something to do with the same things.

  • Anna

    I am absolutely sick and tired of Tories rabbitting on about ‘failed state schools’.

    To ensure the best start possible, a child needs 3 things: a supportive home, a congenial social environment and a good school. If you have only two out of three, you’re still in with a chance: a child from a dysfunctional home can thrive in a good school and congenial environment (that’s why many, rich kids from dysfunctional families nevertheless survive with the supportive teaching and surroundings of a public school.)

    Supportive parents and a good school can help a child survive in a tough, deprived neighbourhood.

    But if you have only one of those things, success is elusive. Even if the school is good – and believe you me, some of the most dedicated and caring teachers are in inner-city comprehensives –  children are severely disadvantaged if there is no home support and they live in a grotty environment where they are dodging gangs and stepping over discarded needles. It is very, very hard for a school to get the best out of their pupils in these circumstances no matter how hard the teachers try. And so they are deemed ‘failing’. The real failures are the Tory politicians who destroyed whole industries and communities by their slash and burn assault on the working class in the 1980s. This economic vivisection cut the heart out of communities and drained their lifeblood, creating the despair and social dislocation inner cities suffer to this day. Schools can only reinforce the values of a society; they cannot fight against them. The  ‘feral underclass’ that the Tories sneer at, and that many dedicated teachers try to encourage out of hopelessness, misery and decay, is the direct result of Tory economic brutality that destroyed livelihoods, condemned people to welfare and then berated them for ‘scrounging.’

  • David Linden

    Considering the fact you Mr Campbell never hesitated to point out the privileged background of some Conservatives, why shouldn’t Gove point out that if the comprehensive is in the nice area of Holland Park, it might be a good comprehensive? The Honourable Melissa Benn is also from quite a privileged background… If I remeber correctly her father is the 2nd Vicount Stansgate?