Status anxiety

It's hard not to gloat, but I'm trying my hardest

Free schools are a permanent feature of our educational landscape now

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

I was disappointed to hear Andy Burnham on Marr last Sunday declare his opposition to free schools. He put plenty of distance between himself and Ed Miliband, even admitting Labour spent too much in the run-up to the recession, which is quite something given that he was the Chief Secretary to the Treasury at the time. But Miliband was spot on, apparently, when it came to free schools. He then reeled off all the usual guff about ‘experimenting with children’s education’, ‘surplus places’, ‘unqualified teachers’, etc.

It’s tempting to take Burnham to task over this, since he’s the favourite to become the next Labour leader. What could be clearer evidence that he’s in the pocket of Len McCluskey than siding with the teaching unions? But I’m going to rise above it. Burnham is like one of those Japanese soldiers who emerges from the Burmese jungle, bayonet at the ready, after the war has ended. Newsflash Andy: your side lost. David Cameron has pledged to open 500 new free schools. If you add those to the 250 or so that have opened already, that brings the total to 750. Like it or not, free schools are now a permanent feature of England’s educational landscape. If and when Labour ever gets back in, they won’t be able to do anything about them.

It doesn’t come naturally to me to be magnanimous in victory, particularly when I think about the misery Labour would have inflicted on the parents and teachers who’ve devoted their lives to setting up new schools over the past five years. But magnanimous our side must be. To quote my father, the author of Labour’s 1945 manifesto, we’ve won the war and now we must win the peace. We need to disabuse our opponents of the notion that we are softening up England’s public education system so it can be sold off to billionaire robber barons, and persuade them that we are in the same business as them, namely, creating good local schools so all children can realise their potential, particularly the least well-off.


A good opening salvo in this campaign has been fired by Robert Peal, head of history at the West London Free School. He’s just edited a collection of essays for John Catt called Changing Schools: Perspectives on Five Years of Education Reform. It includes contributions from some of the most important voices in the reform movement, including James O’Shaugh-nessy, Katharine Birbalsingh, Daisy Christodoulou, Andrew Old, Jonathan Simons and Tom Bennett. In the introduction, Peal argues that the main impact of increased school autonomy has been to empower teachers, handing them more control over what’s taught in their classrooms and, just as importantly, how it’s taught. This revolution is far from complete — politicians and bureaucrats still hold too much power — but it’s likely to continue under Nicky Morgan. That’s a good argument for why all teachers should embrace the government’s reform programme, not just shy Tories lurking at the back of the staff room.

But the really striking thing about Changing Schools is not the substance of the essays, but the tone. Flicking through its pages, it’s clear that most of the contributors believed we were heading for a period of Labour government and they do their best to make a bipartisan case for the improvements they’ve made over the past five years. Gone is the shrill, embattled note of the warrior in full cry — my own preferred register — and in its place is a calm, measured voice. Imagine the curator of a museum in Iraq trying to reason with the local Isis commander, surrounded by troglodytes clutching hammers and power drills, and you have the general idea.

Had the barbarian horde actually made it as far as Downing Street on 8 May, I have no doubt these pleas would have fallen on deaf ears. Tristram Hunt would not have been entrusted with the task of dismantling free schools and academies — too soft. No, it would have been given to some knuckle-dragging Brownite. Within months, people like James O’Shaughnessy, Katherine Birbal-singh and Jonathan Simons would have been hauled before some quasi-judicial House of Commons committee, where the show trials would have begun. I shudder to think about it.

But given that Labour and its allies in the teaching unions have been vanquished, the contributors to this excellent collection of essays have, almost by accident, hit upon exactly the right note. Henceforth, I will try my best to mimic their reasonable, consensual tone. The insurgents have won and we must do our best to treat our former masters with dignity and respect.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Tron

    No, let’s gloat.
    Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, John Prescott, Nick Clegg, Vince Cable…….your boys took one hell of a beating!

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      Barbarian horde. Knuckle dragging. Troglodytes. Yes a very reasoned tone.

      • Dr. Heath

        Lower than vermin. Scum. These are much better ways of insulting the millions of people who’ve voted ‘the wrong way’, by which I mean that they’re the epithets employed by the ‘progressive’ morons who appear on The Guardian’s site to denounce Tories. Would these terms be more reasonable than ‘troglodyte’ or ‘knuckle dragger’?

        • Johnny Foreigner

          It’s all part of the cut & thrust,son. You could always report him to the police, there’s always room for another type of hate crime. Go on, you can be the voice of the oppressed and marginalised troglodytes & knuckle dragger types.

          • Hamburger

            No, it’s very very dull.

          • Dr. Heath

            Some hate crimes are more equal than others – Orwell??

            Vilifying ‘Tory scum’ is a form of moral posturing or virtue-signalling and involves no risk of the perpetrator having an unfriendly visit from Mister Plod, who probably hates ‘Tory scum’ just as much.

        • GraveDave

          And the Right likewise to all those who would suggest they would be voting for Miliband or Labour. Look at what Rod Liddle had to put up with when it come out that he might cast a vote for Labour. Good job for him and his column they lost otherwise half the Spectator readership would probably have fell out with him .

    • aspeckofboggart

      “Remember you are mortal.”

  • ColinPowis

    ….Labour are anachronistic , living in a bygone era , catering to a romantic view of the ”working classes ” that no longer exist …there is no longer a homogenous working class but competing sub groups and the successful Tory strategy has been to divide and conquer that started with Thatcher ; the so called ”white van man ” is a good example

    Labour needs to do an autopsy on their defeat and then quickly move to the political centre or they will die a natural death ; indeed the zeitgeist lies in the centre and that’s where victory will be found ; even Cameron recognised this and moved Left …UKIP are his noisy reaction

    The Left must be seen through the distorted lens of a quasi religion ,a crusade by religious fundamentalists who think that every failure is due to lack of purity and needs more orthodoxy ; THAT is the real problem for the LEFT and poor Mili is a fine example of the religious impulse shoehorned into secular belief ; Miliband , like Kinnock before him will probably never understand how or why he was defeated as they are in too much of a political straightjacket or cultural cage

  • ColinPowis

    The Left are like religious fundamentalists at odds with modernity who believe that failure is a result of lack of purity and orthodoxy ….Liz Kendall is a heretic , or an apostate who is broad minded enough to read the writing on the wall …she is the secular Martin Luther , or maybe she is like the 19th century Christians who have made their peace with evolution and are trying to find a compatible middle ground that will allow themselves to keep their faith and accept the obvious truth of biology …she could very well be the first female leader of the Labour Party and PM , IF ,she is not burnt at the stake for heresy !

  • ColinPowis

    Anyone familiar with the former Soviet Union will instantly recognise what has happened to Labour ; they are in the death grip of Leftist apparatchiks and what is needed is a reformer and centrist like Gorbachev …it may well be the L P is like the Soviet Union and un-reformable and as such is doomed to extinction , but it seems to me that after the 1992 defeat they pragmatically moved to the political centre and after this similar defeat they will move to the centre again

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      ….and with a following wind the Tories will be heaved out for another 13 years.

      • akrasia

        “…and with a following wind”.
        I feel a stone obelisk coming on.

      • Caractacus

        No Scotland, boundary changes, Belsen Burnham and Len McTrotsky.

        You’ll be lucky if you come back with 200 MPs next time.

        • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

          If our party have 200 MP’s next time I will be delighted as curently we only hold Brighton Pavilion.

      • vieuxceps2

        You remind ne of the Cargo Cult islanders . Keep laying out your empty theories and looking skywards…..

  • marklu

    So the proportion of free schools is going to treble to just over 3% of the total is it? The vast majority of people you wish to persuade you share common agenda with probably give no more than 3% of their attention to free schools which are little more than spit a in the ocean.

    Of far more concern was the shrill abuse thrown in the direction by proponents of this diversion at anyone who questioned how having a handful of schools which can choose to teach who they like and where they like is going to have a positive impact on the whole of the service. Going to let Jonny Griffiths know you were on his side all along then?

    • Caractacus

      Would you like some ketchup with that chip?

  • AndyB

    Can we have a link to a PDF of the above, Toadmeister?

  • Schoolswot

    “This revolution is far from complete — politicians and bureaucrats still hold too much power — but it’s likely to continue under Nicky Morgan.”

    That’s actually very amusing since the Sec of State has far more power now than any previous Sec of State has had. But then you know this but are still trying to convince people that ‘council run schools’ have interfering busybodiess there all day telling teachers what to do, telling them how to spend their money, telling them who they can employ.

    When are you going to admit that this hasn’t been the case since the late 1980s Toby?

    Don’t be a liar all your life…

  • Schoolswot

    OK…so who runs schools in Toby’s ideal world of academies and free schools (actually the same thing – especially as far more free schools are being opened by academy chains than by parent groups).

    Academies as [art of academy chains have no autonomy. None whatsoever – they can be told what to do by their trust and can’t do a single thing about it – they have no separate identity.

    Academy chains are overseen by 8 Regional Commissioners.

    Who appoints them?

    The Secretary of State.

    Where do local people fit into this?

    Well, they don’t do they? Power is with Morgan, her 8 lackeys and academy trustees.

    The marvellous thing is that you’re so blinkered that you really think that it’s other politicians and bureaucrats who have the power and not your favoured ones.

    One day you might be honest enough to admit that what we’ve seen is a massive centralization of education – exactly the opposite to what they’re now proposing elsewhere.

    What happens when Manchester demands control of schools too as well as transport, housing etcTobes?

    Let’s have a guess…

  • TimeandtheRani

    The debate isn’t going to be won until we see the results of these schools existence, not merely seeing that they exist.

  • ohforheavensake

    Still a terrible idea, Toby.

    Have you actually found a headmaster yet?

  • global city

    Labour have to utterly divorce themselves from the ideology of state regulation always being good thing…and part of a wider path to nirvana. This has been comprehensively trashed as a concept and is as obsolete as institutional organisations like the EU.

    • Terry Field

      And the moon needs to become chocolate coated and the sun made of lemon curd.

  • AndyB

    Can we have a link to a PDF of the above please, Toadmeister.

  • Schoolswot

    “Within months, people like James O’Shaughnessy, Katherine Birbal-singh and Jonathan Simons would have been hauled before some quasi-judicial House of Commons committee, where the show trials would have begun.”

    It’s difficult to see how much more stupid you could be but that sentence really is a low-point of your cheerleading for free schools.

    Really? You seriously think that would happen?

    The odd thing is that the Commons Education Select Committee has been far more critical about academies and free schools than you dare admit.

    And best of all is that the chair is one of your own Tory MPs Graham Stuart.

    Not that you ever take any notice of what they report.

    • marklu

      Thing is Swotty, you have to hand it to them. A wholesale handing over of public assets to private bodies. Representatives of said private bodies in situ at the DFE ensuring that they ( academy chains) are OFSTED proof.

      Meanwhile Squealer here diverts us all with the focus on the 3% of “Free Schools” whilst useful idiots like Failed Teacher Robert “Research Fellow ” Peal and Princess Birbalbollocks lend it a veneer of professional credibility.

      Entryism at its best. Very tight little London based circle this cell isn’t it? O’Shaghnessy’s latest appointment is failed incompetent Headteacher Annalise Brigs!

  • Terry Field

    What great news that this miserable faux-syndicalist, old-soviet, Trad-NHS loving, unimaginative, prole-supporting, tedious little CRUD is going to be the new bandleader of the NewOldBuggeredUp Labour comedy-skiffle band.
    LOTS of laughing ones socks off to come, and NO CHANCE of that foul little entity making anything like a come-back.
    And SUCH fun to watch Harperson bitch away for another five fun-packed years.

  • thetrashheap

    The thing about removing safe guards is that the whole thing doesn’t fall apart immediately.

    Neo-liberals decided debt didn’t matter and we have indebted everything. People, Business and governments even our students.

    Everybody claiming all good thanks to the massive economic boast each new opened sources of debt creates. Reality is somewhere down the line we screwed

    Neo-liberals decided culture doesn’t matter. Claiming the fact only a few bad apples now all good.

    Reality is we creating the conditions for future civil war.

    Neo-liberals claim removing all red tape in school awesome because centralized control bad. Saying all good.

    Reality down the line we are going to see the increasing influence of fanatics on our kids. Increase in poor quality untrained teachers etc.

    I’m not fan of the twonks our education system creates at universities but we should have gone after that gibberish, not just deregulated everything. The trojan horse is just the tip of the iceberg coming our way as people influce these “free schools”. I prefer “bought schools”

    • Caractacus

      Gibberish.

      • vieuxceps2

        No,not even gibberish.

  • EnosBurrows

    The Tories got 37% of the vote, just 1% more than Labour in 2005, and no more of a mandate.

    • carlos jones

      Yea and 41% in England which the only domain they’ll have any power over. Are you suggesting party’s should have over 50% share before they have any mandate to Govern?

  • EnosBurrows

    The oddest thing about “free schools” is the unacknowledged centralisation they involve. Rather than locally elected authorities (some good, some bad, but all subject to local electorates), these “free schools” are all directly dependent on central government.

  • Sten vs Bren

    I think it’s a crying shame that Toby had to go to a comp and it’s been the source of much heartache in his life and now, ours.

    • vieuxceps2

      The source of much heartache is that comp schools exist at all.

    • grammarschoolman

      An odd statement, given that he’s founded a comp of his own.

  • milford

    Andy Burnham looks like a rodent caught in the headlights. I’m sure the innocent/earnest expression hides a multitude of sins and what’s with the mascara? Wouldn’t trust him to make me a cup of tea.

  • Pacificweather

    This isn’t just a silly article it is a boring one. Come on Toby, you can do enter than this.

  • GraveDave

    Katharine Birbalsingh,

    . It’s fine now but it’s not been easy.” She said she had been the target of racist and misogynist abuse via email and Twitter, which she withdrew from for two years. “Having given that speech it was then difficult to work in the world of education in the state sector. I got quite ill at one point. I got terrible eczema because of the treatment and the attacks.”

    Still sounds like a Lefty to me.

    • marklu

      Ah yes Princess Birbalbollocks, who made her name by getting the blue rinse brigade in raptures by saying ” I thought of joining the SWP… then I became a teacher” . A great one liner designed to pander to bigots. And boy she lapped up the adulation, all with a stupid smirk on her face. Then went into victim mode when most of her erstwhile colleagues called her out. Tough.

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