Alastair's Blog

Return to:  Blog | Articles | Videos RSS feed

Fiona Millar 5 Toby Young 0

Posted on 15 November 2009 | 1:11pm

Well done to Fiona Millar – I shall declare an interest shortly – in her just televised debate with Toby Young, who wants to set up his own school in West London.

Ah yes, it was that Fiona, the one I have lived with for 30 years? As readers of The Blair Years will know, those 30 years have had their fair share of arguments, and in case Toby finds himself in the position of arguing with her again, I can give him a bit of advice.

First off, be sure of your ground, and don’t leave room for factual correction. She’s lethal when you get your facts wrong.

Also, don’t shift your ground, because she will spot it quickly, and seize on it. It was blatantly obvious to anyone who read your original articles on this idea that you have indeed shifted your ground to try – unsuccessfully I fear – to deal with the charge that taking State money for your project will require funding to be shifted from other schools which happen to be improving while serving a broader catchment that the Tories’ planned ‘free schools’ will.

And come on Toby, I know it is Sunday morning, and you probably want to be out with the kids somewhere on a nice autumn London day like this rather than talking to Adam Boulton on Sky, but it was a bit embarrassing that Fiona was so evidently more familiar with the Ofsted reports on your local schools than you are. I can indeed vouch for the fact that she was up at 7 am reading them.

Nor was your case helped by the innuendo suggesting that hers was weakened by the use for her own children  of Camden School for Girls. If you’re going to play the (wo)man, not the ball, then for heaven’s sake do a bit of research.

For 66.6 recurring per cent of our kids, Camden School for Girls would have been an odd and difficult choice for their secondary education, as they are boys. For the remaining 33.3 per cent, our daughter, though there would be nothing wrong with her going to Camden, as it happens she doesn’t, because as the boys did before going to university, she attends the comprehensive school nearest to home. These are choices none of us have ever regretted, despite the swirls of middle class angst about (vastly improved) State schools that so pollute this debate, so dominated in the media by editors and journalists who have chosen the private sector for their own kids, and distort their coverage to justify their choice.

So whilst freely accepting I am biased, I have to say I felt she won the debate easily, because she was sure of her ground, passionate about her beliefs, and unwilling to let either Toby or Boulton misrepresent her views.

I was not alone. In pinged an immediate text from my former Mirror colleague Alastair McQueen. Subtle as ever, he said ‘Fiona is so much better on TV than you. And all of your wanked out politico pals. She would also run Question Time much better than the cretinous Dimbleby.’ Like I say, he was always prone to hiding what he really thought behind diplomacy.

And then another, this time from someone in the News International high command who said ‘Fiona was great on schools on Boulton. She rocks.’ Something tells me they are not universally signed up to the ‘Vote Dave’ strategy down Wapping way!

  • Simon Leonard

    Hey Alastair,

    If the Tories win you and Fiona should get married because (a) it would make your relationship stronger and (b) you’d get £20 a week regardless of whether you needed it or not – result.

    (tongue firmly in cheek in case it wasn’t obvious)

  • Toby Young

    Your partner is undoubtedly a formidable debater, but I think “trounced” is a little strong. I thought we each held our own equally well.

    Your partner is undoubtedly a formidable debater, but I think “trounced” is a little strong. I thought we each held our own equally well.

    My parents group has decided to try and set up an Academy under the existing rules, rather than wait for the Tories to be elected and change them, because the need for a new secondary school in Acton is so urgent, not because trying to set up a “free school” would leave us vulnerable to the charge that we’d be draining resources from existing schools in the neighbourhood. The Tories have stated they want an excess of supply — that is, more secondary school places than there is sufficient demand for, in order to stimulate competition. So they’re committed to funding additional school places, on top of those the DCSF is already funding. In short, the argument that “free schools” will take money from existing secondary schools is a red herring.

    I don’t think it’s fair to accuse me of knowing less about Acton High School than Fiona, either. Acton High School is what you’d call a “bog standard comprehensive” — that is, a secondary school firmly committed to the ideology of inclusion — and fulfills that role very well. I’m not arguing it should be replaced by a high-performing “comprehensive grammar”; only that there’s room for both types of schools in my area.

    Fiona’s argument is that it’s better that parents who care about academic attainment should be forced to send their children to the local comprehensive because that will raise standards within that school. My argument is that there should be a variety of schools in every area — both “bog standard comprehensives” and “comprehensive grammars” — so parents can choose which school they think is best suited to their child.

    Let’s not forget, increasing choice for parents in the the state education sector is a Blairite policy — that is, a policy you share some responsibility for promoting. In trying to set up a small City Academy that will share the same ethos and curriculum as high-performing secondary schools like Camden School for Girls and Fortismere, I’m simply trying to take advantage of that policy. You and Fiona may not have sent any of your three children to Camden — sorry for getting that wrong — but Tony Blair sent his son to the Brompton Oratory. For those of us who can’t get into an excellent church secondary school, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to want a similar sort of school, but for Christians and non-Christians alike. Why should your former boss enjoy an opportunity denied to members of my parents group?

    It’s simply untrue, as Fiona repeatedly claimed, that our school will be a niche school for the local middle classes. Yes, the sort of school we’re going to set up will appeal to them, but I know from knocking on doors and telling local people about my school than it will also appeals to non-middle class people, particularly members of ethnic minorities. That fact, as well as the fact that our school will be bound by the admissions code, means its students will reflect the socially and ethnically mixed nature of the area.

    I share your disdain for those middle class liberals who write hand-ringing pieces about deciding to send their children to fee-paying schools. That isn’t me and it isn’t anyone else in my parents group. I went to three state secondary schools and I want my four children to do the same. Like Fiona, I want more middle class parents to send their children to the local state school — and the way to ensure that happens is not to browbeat them into sending them to the local “bog standard comprehensive”, but to allow groups like mine to set up schools that middle class people will feel comfortable about sending their children to. If you accept that these schools won’t just be populated by middle class children, but will reflect the social and ethnic mix of the areas they’re in, as the admissions code is designed to ensure, then the overall social benefit of allowing groups like mine to set up schools will be greater than preventing them from doing so.

    At present, middle class parents either opt out altogether or cluster around “good” state secondaries by moving into their catchment areas. If you allow groups like mine to start “comprehensive grammars” the net result will be more middle class people choosing to educate their children in the state sector — and they’ll be more evenly spread out than those middle class people are at present.

    Finally, there’s no evidence that allowing parents groups to set up schools will have a negative effect on existing state secondary schools. In Sweden, where parents have been allowed to set up schools since 1992, 17 per cent of children of secondary school age are educated in “free schools”, yet the overall effect of this has been to improve the level of attainment in the “municipal” sector (Sweden’s equivalent of comprehensives). You can see chapter and verse on this at my website

    So be fair. Both Fiona and I are equally passionate about this. But please accept that there is a strong case to answer on both sides.

  • AC

    Toby, thanks for taking the trouble to reply. Ok, trouncing was also an expression of loyalty! You and Fiona should have a regular rematch as the process develops. I am glad you share my disdain for the middle class handwringers who talk down the State sector to justify their own choices.

  • Melanie George

    Didn’t see Sky but I think it is great that you and Fiona have always used local state schools for your children. I think we don’t do enough to promote the community and the environmental benefits of this. I speak as someone who lives near two private schools, one nursery, one secondary, whose carbon footprint every morning and afternoon is terrifying as the army of Volvos and BMWs does the drop off and pick up

  • Polly Melton

    I agree with your general stance, but I also agree that Toby Young’s plan can be seen as acting in concert with your views, not against them. I feel that he is trying to use choice – very Blairite – to lever up standards in the state sector and so stop the drift to private schools, which I agree has a negative effect on local communities

  • Harry Gee

    I note you did not rebut the ‘wanked out poliico pals’ part of your friend’s message! Who could he have in mind?

  • Jerry Trentham

    I was part of the middle class angst a few years ago … took our son, then 13, out of the local comp and sent him to a nearby private school … he hated it … five years later, I am so glad we put him back in the local comp.

  • Hazico

    Hi again,

    I’d like to add a few points about our local area on the Notts/Derbys border.

    I’m afraid to say there can be a wide disparity between standards and criteria for admission to state secondary schools in our area.
    There are indeed commonly known “bog standard” or average comprehensives- as many average parents re aware.(Not all middle class hand ringers!)

    If every comp was excellent in every area(as many are,) there would be less angst amongst parents.

    I agree there needs be genuine choice in schools available.
    The reality is, as one head teacher commented recently at a presentation evening, that parental choice is very very limited- and at the mercy of a distant education authority.
    We are also limited by geographical area(catchments)and the quality of schools available in each area- often very average indeed.

    I do agree standards have improved generally, but secondary schools in particular need to improve up and down the country.

    Also I’d vote to ban SATS for Year 6 pupils- completely unnecessary pressure that detracts from a rounded education…!!!

    Personally, I like what I’ve seen of the Scottish system, and in Scandanavia.They put a great emhasis on decent education and pastoral care.

    I’d also like to say that although I’m not in favour of elitism persae, the old Grammar schools were generally excellent, and I’m pretty sure many parents would like to see them back.(or something that equated to the same standards.)

    Above all- could ministers and policy makers PLEASE consult with teachers on the ground, parents and children!!!!

    Thanks again.

  • Hazico

    A further general comment:

    Both my parents became secondary school teachers in later life, after following different careers.

    Much as they loved the actual teaching, and working with children, they were astounded by the continuous mountain of paperwork, marking and box ticking that had become the norm. Most nights were spent marking until about 2am.The pressures were enormous.They just about managed to cope, and were considered excellent teachers; but many in their department were “dropping like flies” from stress related illnesses.These included many experienced and senior teachers, as well as the younger ones coming into the profession.The schools they taught at were considered excellent, and had excellent ofsted ratings.

    They look back with great frustration, and a sigh of “never again.” But it seems so wrong that teachers themselves cannot be more involved in shaping policies and priorities in our children’s education.

    This target driven culture is detracting from other priorities, and disempowering to teachers and parents.

    I really do think we should look more closely at other successful systems, as in Scotland, and have a good debate- not just amongst policy makers.

  • Simon

    Do the words bog standard comprehensive ring any bells with you?

  • Tristan Rudgard

    I didn’t see the Sky debate as I live in the United States, but have just seen a very interesting discussion on education reform on Meet The Press between the Education Secretary (Arne Duncan) Rev. Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich. Three more unlikely bedfellows you might never expect to find, but these guys are traveling around the country and working TOGETHER in a bipartisan way to tackle education reform. As a former teacher myself, their message of working in a team across political lines to put the children first was inspiring.

    Mr Campbell, your sniping comments about Toby Young and crowing at political points scored about such a vitally important issue sadden me. It should be about the kids and not Labour vs Conservative and it reminds me why I emigrated from the United Kingdom five years ago.

  • Fiona Millar

    Sorry to further lower the tone by making another political point.
    The Tories education policy explicitly states that there is no new money for building their ‘free’ schools/academies – they are planning to siphon off 25% from the Building Schools for the Future budget, in other words taking money that is currently intended for existing schools.
    They are also clear that there is no extra revenue funding (ie money to fund the running costs) for their new free schools. Those schools which will have to rely on their ability to attract pupils (again) from existing schools, which then lose that funding. Check out the policy paper on the Tories website if you don’t believe that.
    Or to quote Michael Gove last week ‘parents will have the power to take their child out of a state school , apply to an new Academy, and automatically transfer the ‘per pupil’ funding from the old school to the new Academy. Good schools will grow, bad schools will change and the poorest will benefit most’….apart from those left in the old schools of course.
    Same old Tories, same old discredited ideas about using markets to ratchet up standards.
    No wonder Toby Young has swiftly jumped ship …

  • Paula Mellor

    Come on … tell us … who was the News International high bod? If it ain’t Rupe, I ain’t impressed? And even if it’s Rupe, I ain’t that impressed.

  • JW

    I missed the debate, but I would just like to reply to Toby Young’s comment about high performing schools such as Fortismere.

    As a girl who went to Fortismere Sixth Form from an all-girls “bog standard” comp (a comp which outperformed every other school in Islington that was not private in 2002 on GCSE results mind), I can attest that the results attained at Fortismere are not indicative of a) the experience of the child whilst at the school or b)the ability of the teachers.

    I managed to leave with 5 A-Levels, but choosing that sixth form is a decision I still regret some 6 years after leaving. Why? Because it’s a school ruled by catchment. It’s a catchment system that determines which kids can start at 11 and which can start at 16. This leaves many children who would like to go there and live all of 5 minutes outside of the catchment area, unable to attend.

    Then when you get there aged 16, a good majority of the teachers are pre-occupied with the students they’ve already spent 5 years prepping for Oxbridge that only the brightest of the new influx benefit from the “stellar” standards of the school, the others are left to fall by the wayside. Bright children who need a little encouragement and time from the teachers to achieve their full potential are left to rot because it’s more important that the Oxbridge students get in. Fortismere is, in effect, a state-funded private school for the middle class and local celebs to send their children and feel like they’re still “Joe/Jane Average”.

    Schools like Fortismere are only the answer if the teachers are committed to teaching all the kids equally, and not just the ones they think are going to get them up the schools league table. Sadly, this is not the case for Fortismere.

  • Graham MArsh

    Thank you to both of you for standing up for State schools. The relentless diet of negative stories about state schools is bound to have a detrimental impact on morale among teachers and parents alike. I am retired now but I know it did when I was a maths teacher in a Midlands inner city comprehensive school. I think we gave a good education to pupils, many of them from very difficult backgrounds, but the constant comparisons with better funded private schools, catering only for children from well off and well motivated families, was debilitating.

  • AC

    I must apologise to regular visitors, who like me abhor split infinitives and misuse of apostrophes, for the split infinitive and the missing apostrophe in the opening lines of a recent comment from a Fiona Millar. It does indeed lower the tone. Assuming as I do that this is the same Fiona Millar about whom I wrote this morning, I shall be seeking once more to educate her in these two important areas … once she has cooked my dinner.

  • Eddy Anderson

    Educating Fiona about split infinitives? You’re going TO BOLDY GO where no man has gone before!

  • Toby Young

    I’m reluctant to be cast in the role of the lone Tory defending the Party’s education policy, but Fiona Millar does make one crucial mistake in her reply below. She says that the Tories are planning to use 25 per cent of the money in the BSF budget to fund “free schools” and that since the BSF money has been earmarked for existing schools that means, ipso facto, the money to fund “free schools” will be diverted from existing schools. In fact, that particular pot of money is not just for improving and expanding existing schools, but for building new ones. In the London Borough of Ealing, for instance, BSF money has been earmarked for the building of a new high school in Greenford. If we lived in Greenford, my parents group would undoubtedly be putting all its energy into making a bid to run that school, but unfortunately it’s just too far away from Acton. We need a new secondary school here, too, and we’re hoping to persuade the DCSF to allocate some additional funding for setting up a small, three-form entry Academy which will open in September, 2011.

    Given increased demand for pupil places in my area, the question is who should run the new school, Ealing Council or a parents group? We’re not proposing to staff the school, just be the official “sponsor” so we’d have a majority on the Board of Governors. And we’re not just a bunch of know-nothing middle class hand-wringers. Our Steering Committee consists mainly of teachers, including a head of year at Mill Hill County School, a former head of faculty at Burlington Danes and the head of academic development at Latymer Upper School.

    The general consensus on my Steering Committee is that the key factor in creating a high-performing state secondary school is not the intake, but the ethos and the curriculum. If you can get that right, you’re off to the races.

    The issue, then, is whether the local authority is best placed to set up and run a new secondary school or a parents group like ours. I believe it’s the latter because we’ll be less hidebound by local politics and competing ideologies and because … well, it’s our children who’ll be educated at the school. Once our children have been through the school, we’ll be replaced by a new set of parents, ad infinitum.

    Can parents groups set up good schools? The shining example in this country is the Elmgreen School in West Norwood which was set up by a Parent Promoters group established in 2003 and admitted its first Year Sevens in 2007. Check out its website. It’s dazzlingly impressive.

    However, my favourite example is the Renaissance Arts Academy, a charter school in East LA that I visited recently. This is a truly inspiring school. It was set up by two mums, both classical music lovers who wanted a school where their own children’s love of classical music would be encouraged. Every child at the school has to learn a stringed instrument and practice for an hour a day and Latin is compulsory up to the age of 18. In other words, the ethos and curriculum are very similar to the school my group wants to set up — we want Latin to be compulsory up to the age of 16 — but it by no means attracts a disproportionately high number of middle class students, as Fiona fears ours will. In fact, more than 50 per cent of its intake is eligible for free school meals and only 18 per cent is Caucasian, with the majority being Hispanic and African-American. Not only does it offer a superb liberal education, but it consistently gets the best results in the East LA School District. If we can set up a school like the Renaissance Arts Academy in Acton we’ll all be able to die happy.

    I hope Fiona won’t continue to oppose our plans. We believe that children throughout Britain will be best served by a wide diversity of different schools so parents can choose the school in their area that’s most suited to their child and reflects their values. There is already a very good traditional comprehensive in our area in the form of Acton High and we have no wish to divert resources from that school. We just think there should be an alternative for parents who want their children to have a more academically rigorous education, regardless of ability.

  • Alan Quinn

    Cheers Fiona, I’ll havee a look at the tories plans and pass them on to my fellow governors.
    If those clowns get in it’s look ominous for the state schools.

  • peter farley

    It’s all a bit sad that after the “Education, education & education” mantra of over 12 years ago we are still having this debate. School standards have gone backwards in almost direct proportion to the amount of money that has been poured into the system. Any re-dirction of funds managed by people with more interest in the well being of children than the meeting of bureaucratic targets would have to be an improvement.

  • Tom

    Just a quick comment to defend Fortismere (my alma mater) as I really don’t recognize the portrayal of it below.

    Yes, it’s a school ruled by catchment (with some additional legacy places from the sibling rule which takes in areas otherwise outside the catchment) – but that’s surely a good thing? What’s the fair alternative to selection by proximity? I certainly don’t see how “we’ll accept anyone who lives within X distance” fits with it being a “state-funded private school” – Muswell Hill is a pretty middle-class area, sure, but the intake is suprisingly mixed.

    Nor do I recognize the charge that the teachers, as a whole, ignore weaker pupils in favour of a handful of stars. Maybe JW had a poor selection of teachers – the one huge problem Fortismere had at that time (and JW would be a contemporary of mine, though I have to say I can’t figure out who from the initials) was a ridiculous staff turnover, pushing 20-25% a year, so there were some pretty bad teachers in there at times. But of the twelve (like I said, there was a high staff turnover) teachers I had for A-levels, while a few weren’t great teachers, and there were a couple I didn’t like personally, I can only think of one who was not particularly helpful to all students (and she was equally unhelpful to everyone, including the Oxbridge-bound).

    The impression it always left me with was a school where, if you wanted to push yourself, the opportunities were there, and if you wanted help, the offer was there. And if you were happy to just get on with it, you’d probably be left to do so rather than being pushed harder (as one of the teachers roughly said on the “Don’t Mess With Miss Beckles” TV programme a few years back, they’d rather have students getting Bs, than students getting As and an eating disorder). Which is probably why it’s not an academically excellent school – its value-added score is lower than several in the borough, and occasionally even dips below 100 – but it made for a pleasant atmosphere (the lack of uniforms and lack of any religious ethos helped, too).

  • Louise

    I also went to Fortismere and although I mostly agree with Tom’s comment I’d just like to make a couple of corrections his and JW’s comment. The reason the intake is “surprisingly mixed” is, I believe, because they still operate a desegregation busing system allowing children from outside the borough to attend. JW’s comment about it attract the children of the famous who want to be with real people is, I think, slightly inaccurate. The ethos of many of the parents of children at Fortismere is closer to a liberal belief in state schools as Toby Young does. Unfortunately for him though he does not live in an area like Muswell Hill where the other parents have passed on a typically middle class work ethic to their children so that his local comprehensive underperforms. And just to clarify, very few actual ‘celebs’ send their children to Fortismere, it’s mostly Guardian journalists.

  • bishop brennan

    Errr, you must have been watching a different show to the one I saw. Fiona Millar came across as an obnoxious, ‘I know better than parents what’s best for their children’, typical freedom-hating socialist. When will you lot learn that other people’s children are not there simply to be part of some great social experiment that you want to carry out? Do it on your own money, with your own children, not with mine.

    And try reading the To Miss With Love blog to see just how the wonderful comprehensive education system is destroying the life chances of poor, mostly black kids in English inner cities. A British Barack Obama? Not a chance in Labour Britain.

  • JW

    Just a reply to both Tom and Louise’s comments.

    In my time we had two kids who’s parents feature prominently in the newspapers in my year alone, two others who’s parents work is known nationwide, and lots of other “Z” list celebs children.

    About the high staff turnover, whilst this is true, other schools have suffered this same fate and still manage to have a high standard of teaching. At my previous school to Fortismere, I had a different science teacher every year for 5 years and yet the class still managed to come out with a B average at GCSE. One year we had 3 different science teachers!

    I personally, and many other students, have experienced the annoyance of asking for help and staying behind to get it, only to be ignored. Case in point: two music students (who came to Fortismere from other schools) once stayed behind for coursework help until 6.30pm, in that whole time the teacher (who had been at Fortismere for some years and praised for the running of the music department) did not acknowledge them until 6.20pm when she had finished helping another student (who had been at fortismere since 11) who had been there since we had arrived.

    This happened in other departments as well, though it would be naive to say that every department was this bad, some were stellar. The point is that, at 16 children should still be pushed by their teachers to unlock their potential, and personally I find schools like Fortismere are too into letting kids get on with it until they speak up. Some kids never speak up out of shame or embarassment.

    They’re just as talented, but they need the teacher to see that within them and help them achieve it without them having to ask. After all, the job of a teacher is not just to teach but to spot talent and nurture it, it’s hard to do that if you’re waiting for the talented to come and make themselves known.