Monday, 5 September 2011

A Liberal democrat politician being liberal - on schools! Will wonders never cease?


Listening to the Radio while sitting in the traffic up Manchester Road out of Bradford and the presenter announces the next guest. It is Lord Willis - Phil Willis, former head teacher and Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate. Phil is going to talk about 'free schools' - my heart sinks. A Liberal Democrat peer who used to be a teacher - grief this won't be good now will it!

And Phil starts saying something like "I only half agree with Nick Clegg." Flecks of rage-induced spittle begin to form on my lips, the eyes start to swivel - Nick Clegg has given one of his most cardhousian of speeches:

Yes to greater diversity, yes to more choice for parents, but no to running schools for profit, not in our state funded education sector.'

And this ex-MP only half agrees with him.

But then it changes. Far from wanting to carry on the state-directed, local council apparachik managed system that is so damaging children, Lord Willis pointed out that, while 24 free schools is great, what we really need in 300 free schools. And, as the Swedes discovered, you can only achieve this by allowing schools to be run for profit. Good Lord, I exclaimed!

And the argument went on as Phil pointed out that loads of businesses - for profit businesses - make money from the public sector without anyone batting an eyelid (bar the occasional neanderthal nutter in Unison). Why should it be so different for schools. Here was a liberal being liberal - almost unheard of these days. Here was a man who understood schools (having been the head teacher of a large Leeds comprehensive), who had pointed out how the doubling of spending on schools had hardly raised standards at all. A man who observed that eleven-year-olds were arriving at big school unable to read, write or add up - not just the odd one or two but whole classes filled with semi-literates.

Nick Clegg - desperate to appease the social democrats in his party - is wrong on schools. Wrong to talk about directing where the next lot of free schools should be, wrong to try and apply some form of social gerrymandering just to avoid Labour's sad little accusation that these schools are "only for middle-class kids" and wrong to rule out running schools for profit.

And, you know what the saddest bit of Lord Willis's interview was? Even sadder than the ignorant presenter's suggestion that profit-making equated to fee-paying. Sadder than that same presenter's complete misrepresentation of the policy - failing entirely to recognise the role of the pupil premium that would make educating poor kids more profitable. Sadder than the BBC's obsession with giving airtime to educational flat-earthers like Fiona Miller.

The saddest bit was that Lord Willis believed the policy would fail because his party wouldn't recognise how profit-making would transform educational delivery for the better.

I hope - for the sake of the children living in poverty - that Lord Willis is wrong. But I fear he isn't.


No comments: