Fraser Nelson

Revealed: the secret school wars

Revealed: the secret school wars
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Britain’s state school system is a national disgrace. Not because we don’t have excellent schools: we do. But only for those who can afford to move to the good catchment areas. The comprehensive system gives the best service to the rich, and the worst to the poor. It is a system which harbours bad teachers – only 18 have been struck off for incompetence in 40 years. Compare this to the USA where 252 bad teachers were sacked in one day last week. Our world-class private schools show that England can be a world leader in education. But we have one of the biggest gaps in the world between attainment in private and public sector. Our shamefully low rates of social mobility are driven by our failure to change an education system that doles out the worst service to the poor.

What should cause outrage – but, weirdly, doesn’t – is the way in which one can find a direct correlation between GCSE results and the deprivation of the neighbourhood. Why is there no indignant Guardian analysis, matching up the two? Where are the "progressive" attacks? Even Ed Balls would not argue that the bad results from schools in deprived areas can be explained because (to paraphrase Kinnock) the children from disadvantaged backgrounds are thick. The system needs changing. And, in four decades, no one has dared to change it. Even Thatcher considered this a bridge too far. Why? With Scargill, it was a fixed battle. With the schools, it a far harder battle. And one too many PMs have bottled out of fighting.


Today’s Spectator cover story, by myself and Ed Howker, looks at what is, to my mind, one of the most important issues in Britain. It is the means with which the state school system is run by unions and local authorities. Sure, Gove’s legislation – achieved in 77 days – gives some 3,000 of the top-rated schools the right to become Academies. But next week, he’ll name the number who have done so in the first wave and no one expects more than a few dozen. Why? Are they all so happy in the current system? The truth is that many faced a campaign of intimidation and bullying. Here’s an extract from the piece:


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’.

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.

And what about new schools? Our story also reveal a tactic to kill them which has, hitherto, been undisclosed. The enemies of school reform have joined forces with lawyers who gladly campaign to kill them off – and basically take court action. Crucially, legal aid is available if the case is brought by applicants whose income is low enough. So government money is used to fight government policy. We have four separate examples of this:

 -- Some £65,000 in a case over University College London's plans to open a City Academy in Camden.

-- 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.

-- Rob MacDonald, a member of the Socialist party, secured £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.)

Michael Gove can expect this tactic to be used over and over again to stop his new schools. Having lost the battle in parliament, the enemies of school reform hope to kill it in the courts. Gove wants to break the current system, which so effectively keeps the poor down, by the middle of next year. His opponents are working to the same timetable and there is, alas, no telling which side will win.