Having lost the battle over Michael Gove’s Academies Act, the enemies of school reform have switched to guerrilla tactics. Fraser Nelson and Ed Howker on the methods which may yet kill off the flagship Tory agenda

Any head teacher of a school trying to free itself from state control will have had no summer holiday this year. In the weeks since Michael Gove introduced a law allowing top-rated schools to break free from local authority control, trade unions have been on the hunt for anyone daring to express interest in this offer. Heads have been sent letters, demanding they reveal their intentions. Those who do not reply are told they had better prepare for a battle. A secret war which will decide the future of English education is underway.

The National Union of Teachers wants to seek out and bully into submission any school thinking of becoming ‘free’ (which means becoming an ‘Academy’, thereby remaining in the state sector but free from local authority rules). ‘Free schools’ or academies will be allowed to expand and compete with other schools; they’ll be free to poach good teachers and (whisper it) sack bad ones. As the NUT knows, this is a threat to the current system, in which exceptional teachers are often poorly paid, and only 18 bad teachers have been struck off for incompetence in the last four decades. The NUT’s mission is to stop schools taking up Gove’s offer, as laid out in the Academies Act. Its methods, you might think, are sheer thuggery.

Take, for example, Mrs Y, a headmistress in a predominantly black inner-city school. She was ‘outed’ when Gove’s department released names of schools interested in applying for independent status. She received a letter by an official from the National Union of Teachers, angry that she had not revealed her plans earlier. A copy of their exchange has been seen by The Spectator. ‘I knew we would find out very soon,’ she was told. ‘This fundamental attack on state schools, held democratically accountable through local authorities, apparently means very little to you.’

‘We are absolutely not seeking a conflict,’ the letter continued. ‘Nontheless [sic] we regard these proposals as a fundamental attack on state education and will, for the sake of our members and the children we teach, do everything we can to stop any school becoming an academy. And this includes industrial action and campaigning amongst the parents.’

The message could not be clearer. Unless the headmistress drops her plans, the NUT will try to organise a strike in her school. ‘Our members — your staff — wish for this unanimously agreed motion to be raised at the next Governors meeting. We will campaign with all at our disposal.’

Mrs Y was, of course, frightened and concerned. She has precious few resources to counter this. The NUT has several other weapons at its disposal. It seeks out the details which can be used to make life even more difficult for Mrs Y and her colleagues. For example, the Academies Act was amended in the Lords to require that schools seek ‘consultation’ before going independent. The word was not defined further, meaning that the opponents of academies have been able to exploit it easily. Another letter sent to teachers from Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, informs them that this amendment means that some ‘schools that planned to become Academies by September will no longer be able to do so’.

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She also asks schools to hand over all details of their consultation, ‘so that we can monitor the effects of this change of government policy’. Furthermore, Ms Blower demands from the head teachers a ‘summary of the consultation responses’ and ‘details of figures of those in favour, those against and those unsure’. Not content with a hit list of schools considering making a bid for freedom, the NUT plans to create a list of the individuals who support the scheme. It isn’t difficult to imagine what it would do with such information.

Time was when a head teacher could, rightly, refuse Ms Blower’s requests. But the letter ends with a killer sentence. ‘Please treat this as a request under the Freedom of Information Act and respond within 14 days.’ Schools, as part of the public sector, are obliged to comply.

If existing institutions are being targeted by unions like this, what about Mr Gove’s proposed breed of entirely new ‘free schools’ started by parents and charity groups? His pledge — made to The Spectator two years ago — is as clear as it is radical. ‘In your neighbourhood [after one term of Tory government] there will be a new school, going out of its way to persuade you to send your children there.’

As the enemies of reform already know, the way to fight these new schools is to sue them. And astonishingly, this can be done with legal aid. Here, Fiona Millar shuffles onto the stage. Through writing and broadcasting, Alastair Campbell’s partner has become one of the most prominent activists working against the Gove agenda. Cheering her on are a clutch of sympathetic lawyers who seem determined to see ‘free schools’ killed off in the courts.

Their modus operandi was revealed three years ago, when University College London wanted to open a school in Camden. This is the home turf of both Ms Millar and Lord Adonis, architect of the City Academy policy. Adonis is a great champion of academies. He was sent to board by Camden council when his single father was unable to look after him. He went to Kingham Hill in the Cotswolds — an establishment that now costs £24,000 a year. Thereafter, his mission was to deliver independent education to children from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds.

Ms Millar’s mission, meanwhile, is to keep the state system intact. So devoted is she to destroying the Adonis-Gove academies project that she wrote to the UCL student newspaper urging undergraduates to support legal action against what she called a ‘wholly undemocratic… backroom deal’ between council and government over the new school. She joined forces with Richard Stein, a partner in a law firm called Leigh Day, who took on the lawsuit against the plans. He, too, saw the case as totemic. He told his local newspaper that it would be a ‘Guy Fawkes day’ which would ‘blow up New Labour’.

The Spectator has established that £65,000 of legal aid was made available because the case was brought by two local mothers on low incomes. Stein was clever enough to challenge UCL’s plans under the EU procurement rules, which would require the council to invite offers from anyone else who might open a school — a legalistic gambit never tried before. The case failed: it proved unsuccessful both on first hearing and at appeal. But UCL was extremely committed to opening the school, and a less dedicated sponsor might have given up.

The formula — begin court action and claim legal aid — has been used in various other cases, the details of which can now be disclosed. Campaigners who tried to stop the creation of the St Mary Magdalene Academy in north London were given £20,000 of taxpayers’ money. A judicial review challenge to a new academy in the Isle of Sheppey in Kent was given £12,500 of taxpayers’ money. One Rob MacDonald, a member of the Socialist party, secured an extraordinary £20,000 for his unsuccessful attempt to stop the failing Tamworth Manor school in Merton from becoming a City Academy. (Since its new ownership, the ratio of pupils winning five or more GCSEs has trebled to 95 per cent.) No wonder Fiona Millar has become the TV face of the campaign to stop Gove. The tactics she pioneered against UCL are bound to be used time and time again to thwart Gove’s academies.

This was always the left’s plan: if it could not
defeat reform in the polling booth, it would do so in the courts. It’s a minefield. The Equalities Act 2010 forces the government to ‘consider how their decisions might help to reduce the inequalities associated with socio-economic disadvantage.’ A phrase that seems harmless to a politician is a loaded weapon for a lawyer.

Mr Gove may very well offer legal aid to new schools, in the hope of levelling the playing field. And the ranks of those on the pro-reform side are growing. There are supportive local authorities, such as Wandsworth and Somerset. The National Association of Head Teachers is receptive to the reforms, perhaps recognising that it gives their members more freedom and less paperwork. The City Academy sponsors — Absolute Return for Kids (ARK) and the Harris Group — are anxious to expand. Crucially, an increasing number of teachers are also interested in joining the independent movement.

One is Mark Lehain, a maths teacher who is trying to set up a new ‘free school’ in Bedford. ‘There is a group of ten teachers and educationalists driving our plans through, and we’re all union members,’ he says. ‘I know the leadership have concerns about these reforms but the vast majority of teachers I’ve spoken to are really excited about what they see as the re-professionalisation of education. They have been told what to teach, when to teach and how to teach it for decades and this is a chance to change all that.’ Yet such teachers lack the organisational apparatus to combat the likes of the NUT.

A look at this week’s GCSE results shows how badly reform is needed. A scandalous pattern can easily be detected where schools in prosperous areas do brilliantly, and those in deprived areas abysmally. There is a direct correlation between attainment and wealth. Not even Ed Balls, the former schools secretary, could claim that this is because the pupils in poor areas are thick. It is because the comprehensive education experiment has failed the poor spectacularly. As Tony Blair argued, one does not serve the working class by defending a system which has so badly betrayed them.

But hope can also be found in the GCSE results, in the extraordinary improvements in the schools granted academy status under Labour. Under new management, for example, pass rates in Peterborough’s Ormiston Bushfield Academy more than doubled in the space of a year — and there are several other examples. Seldom has a social policy been so quickly vindicated. It shows that rapid improvement in English state education is possible — if the battle for independence is won. Michael Gove intends to break the old system by the summer of next year. The enemies of school reform are working to precisely the same timetable, and with no less energy. And there is, alas, no telling which side will win.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated