The Conservative Party fringe is not my natural home, but we all need to get our ideas challenged from time to time, so the chance to debate against Michael Gove tonight was too good an opportunity to pass up. It was also a chance to tell the wider political world about the Local Schools Network.
The Secretary of State is a polished performer with well honed debating skills dating back to his time in the Oxford Union. He is very charming, starts nearly every sentence with a compliment for the person he least agrees with (in this case me), quotes liberally from the classics and French literature but rarely answers the question he is asked.
In the course of the discussion on whether ‘Free schools would lead to a free for all’, three particular questions were left hanging. The first, from a Conservative county councillor in Surrey was: ‘Why couldn’t he give all schools more autonomy without making them academies?’ The second from a Tory Councillor in Bromley was ‘Why shouldn’t parents be allowed to set up a new grammar school if that is what they want?’
The third (from me) was how he could ensure that all new academies and free schools complied with the Codes of Practice on Admissions and SEN. To be fair, he half answered this by saying parents who couldn’t get their children into a free school or an academy could have a word with him and he would sort it out. He could be very busy in years to come.
The truth is that all schools could be given more freedom without becoming academies, but none should be given freedoms in areas like admissions, exclusions and SEN. The Tory Party’s local government base, tasked with the job of trying to plan school provision in the face of shrinking budgets, is uneasy about some of the leadership’s plans. Meanwhile many members still yearn for a return to fully selective education.
Gove’s reluctance to engage on this point spoke volumes. In his heart, I suspect he agrees with the grass roots and hopes to usher in a form of selection by the back door, letting new ‘free’ schools pick and choose the pupils they teach, while the government peddles the rhetoric of parent choice, ‘socially comprehensive’ intakes and policies for the poor.