It’s becoming increasingly clear that the most militant trade unions have education reformers in their sights.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the most militant trade unions have education reformers in their sights. A month of industrial action is due to begin at the end of March, culminating in a series of demonstrations to coincide with the royal wedding, and free school proposers can expect to be at the business end of these protests.
The NUT’s opposition to the coalition’s education policy is hardly surprising, but the involvement of other trade unions in this battle is more perplexing. The keynote speaker at a recent rally in Acton to oppose the West London Free School was Bob Crow. What business is it of the RMT if a group of parents and teachers want to establish a new secondary school in west London? Similarly, the GMB recently started campaigning against the Bolingbroke Academy, a proposed new free school in Wandsworth. Hasn’t Britain’s third-largest union got bigger fish to fry?
The explanation is that the leaders of these unions have identified educational reform as a key issue in their attempt to bring down the government. Their general strategy is to portray David Cameron, George Osborne and Michael Gove as fanatical ideologues who are using the deficit as a smokescreen to dismantle the welfare state and transfer responsibility for essential services to their chums in the private sector. Free schools are exhibit A in the case for the prosecution. The policy has the added advantage of being a potential fault line between the Tories and the Lib Dems.
Now, the difficulty with focusing on the coalition’s education policy in order to advance this narrative is that the government has expressly forbidden private companies to run free schools. Conglomerates such as Serco and VT are allowed to be involved at the margins, just as they were allowed to deliver some aspects of state education under the previous government. But the coalition hasn’t changed the rules. Much to the irritation of private education providers, there doesn’t appear to be any way for them to become involved in the set-up and operation of free schools, at least not on a large scale. That’s the reason so few are likely to be established in the lifetime of this parliament.
Clearly, a political calculation was made by the Conservative leadership that to allow private companies to run free schools would leave the government vulnerable to the charge of trying to privatise state education. What they didn’t anticipate is that the policy’s opponents would say this anyway. Or perhaps they did, but imagined they would win the propaganda war because the facts are on their side. Either way, they’re guilty of naivety. As the old saying goes, a lie will travel halfway round the world before the truth has put its boots on.
A good illustration of this is a recent article in the Guardian by Jeevan Vasagar, one of the paper’s education correspondents. He’s a fair-minded journalist with no political axe to grind, but he’s clearly been so bombarded with misinformation by the unions that he believes the privatisation calumny. In a piece entitled ‘Michael Gove’s school vision takes shape’ he claimed that the free schools policy has ‘created a fresh opportunity for businesses with an interest in education’. He cited the education trust CfBT’s intention to create a chain of free schools as a case in point, identifying CfBT as a ‘private educational consultancy’.
In fact, no such ‘fresh opportunities’ exist and the only reason CfBT is able to countenance running free schools is because it’s a charity. The fact that Vasagar has got this wrong is profoundly depressing. If an education correspondent for a broadsheet newspaper, someone whose job it is to master the detail of the policy, has been hoodwinked by the teaching unions, what hope does Michael Gove have? The lie that the free schools policy is a mechanism for privatising state education is now almost universally accepted.
Part of the difficulty faced by exponents of the policy is that we are lone voices up against a chorus of opposition. Every time Michael Gove puts his head above the parapet, he’s targeted by an army of detractors, all hurling brickbats. I will do my best to nail the lies about free schools during the Spring of Discontent, but the policy needs more supporters. I would urge anyone who cares about the quality of state education to speak up. This may be our last chance to do anything about it.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.