Chalk Talk: The discreet charm of the free-schools movement
Richard Garner has been Education Editor of The Independent for 12 years and writing about the subject for 34 years. Before becoming a journalist, he worked as a disc jockey in London pubs and clubs and for a hospital radio station. His main hobbies are cricket (watching these days) and theatre. On his days off, he is most likelt to be found at Lord’s or the King’s Head Theatre Club.
Thursday 06 September 2012
Civil servants working for Michael Gove's Department for Education will soon be in for a big surprise.
Proposers of the Government's flagship new free schools were told at the weekend they should try and charm civil servants into backing their projects.
It's never been tried before, according to Toby Young, the journalist-turned-education campaigner who set up the first one – the West London Free School in Hammersmith.
In the past they have been used to dealing with grumpy folk from the traditional education world – people disillusioned or fed up with the Government's education reforms.
It reminds me of the last charm offensive that I reported – actually launched by serving ministers at the then Department for Education and Skills.
Charles Clarke was the Education Secretary and Alan Johnson his Higher Education Minister. The project they were tackling was the introduction of top-up fees for the first time.
It must have worked – the policy got through a sceptical House of Commons. The secrets of the duo's success? "I was charming and Charles was offensive," said Alan Johnson, charmingly.
Charm will not always work, though, as Toby Young admitted himself at a free-schools conference at his school.
Witness the opponents of the free-school movement, he argued, who were "ruthlessly organised, politically motivated groups – like the National Union of Teachers, Socialist Workers' Party and Anti Academies Alliance".
He added the Guardian writer and education campaigner Fiona Millar to that list, whose Local Schools Network, he claimed, was the "Ground Zero" of the opposition to free schools movement.
Speaking after him, Michael Gove labelled the movement's opponents "enemies of promise" – a phrase he has trotted out before. He, too, singled out the NUT and the SWP for opprobrium – although he added that these were "two very different organisations, I should stress".
Given his penchant for dismissing most of the opponents of free schools as Trotskyists, I could not quite make out how far his tongue was in his cheek as he was talking.
I also left wondering just where the Liberal Democrats who have opposed free schools fitted into all this.
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