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Status anxiety

To set up our free school, we’re preparing to go into battle with the hard left

Toby Young suffers from Status Anxiety

11 September 2010

12:00 AM

11 September 2010

12:00 AM

As you may have read, the West London Free School has been included among the ‘first wave’ of schools that have been given the go-ahead by the government to open next year. That’s an important milestone, but we haven’t yet arrived at our destination. In order to reach the Promised Land we’ll have to do battle with the praetorian guard of the educational establishment.

As anyone who read The Spectator’s cover story two weeks ago will know, the hard left is prepared to use any means necessary to defeat Michael Gove’s educational reforms. Take Nick Grant, the most energetic opponent of the West London Free School. As secretary of the Ealing branch of the NUT, Nick has taken it upon himself to contact the borough’s head teachers and warn them against supporting our proposal. Free Schools, he tells them, are profoundly undemocratic — which is a little ironic given that he’s a member of the Socialist Workers Party. Apparently, it’s more ‘democratic’ to allow education policy to be dictated by a revolutionary communist than the elected government of the United Kingdom.

Last week I invited this committed democrat to debate me at a public meeting on Ealing’s South Acton estate. This would have been in front of an audience of local parents, precisely the people Grant claims to be speaking for. But in the end he cried off. For a champion of local accountability he seems remarkably reluctant to be held to account.

In fact, Nick Grant is the least of my concerns. He’s just a foot soldier in the anti-free schools army. It’s the generals I need to worry about. Here I would count Fiona Millar, Alastair Campbell’s partner and a veteran campaigner against any attempt to reform the state education sector. She doesn’t share Grant’s reluctance to debate me in public — indeed, she’s wheeled out whenever I talk about free schools on television or radio. She’s usually introduced as a ‘campaigner for state education’, which is a bit rich given that she devotes nearly all her energy to campaigning against state schools, whether grammars, faith schools or academies. The only schools she’s prepared to stick up for are ‘bog-standard comprehensives’, to use her partner’s felicitous phrase.

More menacing than the NUT is the Anti Academies Alliance, an organisation Fiona Millar is a staunch supporter of. (She described it in the Guardian as ‘a small but doughty umbrella group for mushrooming campaigns around the country’.) Like the NUT, the Anti Academies Alliance has close links to the SWP. For instance, Alasdair Smith, its General Secretary, is a contributor to Socialist Worker, the party’s newspaper, and Nick Grant is also a supporter. It is funded, at least in part, by the teaching unions, which are terrified of the freedom that academies have (and which free schools will also enjoy) to set their own pay and conditions.

Militant opponents of free schools will almost certainly use the same tactic they’ve used to delay the opening of academies in the past — they’ll mount a series of legal challenges. Fiona Millar has helpfully included a briefing from David Wolfe of Matrix Chambers on her blog for campaigners already thinking along these lines. The cases are nearly all brought by people on low incomes, thereby qualifying them for legal aid. Steering committee meetings of the West London Free School are increasingly taken up with war-gaming different scenarios, trying to anticipate where the challenges will come from and how to defend ourselves.

Why is the loony left so opposed to educational reform? If you ask a member of the SWP, they’ll say it’s because they’re sticking up for the most vulnerable, who stand to lose from the opening of any new academies, including free schools. But this attempt to occupy the moral high ground is pretty unconvincing given that it is precisely the most vulnerable who are failed by bog-standard comprehensives.

This is not a battle between the haves and the have-nots but between people struggling to improve state education through innovation and diversification, and defenders of the status quo. And why are revolutionary communists and their allies on the left so resistant to change? Because state education is one of the last redoubts of socialism. Gather ye round, folks. The games are about to begin.

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