Fraser Nelson

Sticking up for free schools

Sticking up for free schools
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I'm on the train back from doing Radio Four's Any Questions – broadcast live from Derby, repeated at 1.10pm tomorrow – where I had a bust-up with Christine Blower of the NUT. CoffeeHousers may recall she was the star of a cover story we ran a few weeks back, about the campaign of bullying and intimidation levelled against headteachers who are trying to seek Academy status. She raised that article during recording, and things kinda kicked off. I told her she should be ashamed of the way her union thugs try to intimidate young teachers who seek to break away from local authority control and reach independence. She denied writing the words ascribed to her, I sought to read them to her – and things descended from there.

Anyway, a few thoughts...

1. When I said that free schools would give the poor the choice that only the rich can afford, the audience laughed. This is precisely what the new schools would do - yet the very proposition was seemingly risible to those in the hall.

2. Blower made it sound absurd that a soft, cuddly union could use such tactics. It perhaps sounded absurd to the audience. This is a major problem, because the battle now underway is under the radar. Blower realises that she can win, as long as she stays under the radar. Any teacher who wants to set up a school, just bombard them with threats of strike action and legal inquiries. They will give up, eventually. Modern governments are led by headlines, and will not waste effort fighting an enemy invisible to the media. The free schools agenda is being driven by only one force right now: Gove's determination. If he goes (as ministers do), then game over.

3. I suspect Blower knows that the next 12 months will be her chance to strangle this baby at birth. The government has left the enemies of reform all too many legal weapons to use. She needs to keep it quiet, target and take out would-be school entrepreneurs, and she'll probably succeed. Gove is one man in a department which is either hostile to his agenda, or lacks the competence to properly implement it. Union officials have passes to enter the DoE – it is no nerve centre of reform.

4. After recording ended, I spoke to the kindly, quiet man who raised the question about the free school. He's in favour of them. Gove's plan has captured the imagination of the public more than it has the media.

5. At the end, we were all asked what we'd do with £180,000 a week (a la Rooney). I replied that I'd set up as many free schools as I could, to irritate Blower. Then, the two of us had to share a cab back to Derby station. We were 20 minutes early, so I asked her for a drink. On a personal level, she's quite charming. I wish her nothing but failure – but she's hardly a wicked person. Her job is to protect her union's interests – and, if you ask me, she's doing it dangerously well. Aside from The Spectator, no one has reported it.

It shouldn't be the case, this union using FoI requests to frustrate the government's flagship reform programme. But the teachers' unions defeated Joseph, Thatcher, Baker, Blair and Adonis. All you need to defeat central government is to operate on a level that doesn't attract national attention. And stall: modern governments have newt-like attention spans. Pesky reformers like Adonis and Gove are soon reshuffled.  

Will Blower triumph? Out of the two of us tonight, she probably came out better. My narrative – of a bullying union trying to intimidate teachers – seemed daft. For years, I have been hugely optimistic about the potential of the Cameron/Gove school reform agenda. But the battle is on to yank the genie of choice out of the bottle, and it really could go either way.

P.S. Justine Greening was fabulous in attacking Labour and defending the cuts package tonight. Passionate, articulate and unintimidated by the chorus of boos. The repeat on R4 tomorrow afternoon is worth listening to, if only to hear her in action.