Scene: a Ministerial Office in Whitehall.
Minister: I’ve an important speech to make, Sir Humphrey. It’s to OMPS – the Organisation for Minor Private Schools. Its members are very keen to become free schools and be funded by the state instead of having to rely on cash-strapped parents.
Sir Humphrey: And their inclusion in the state sector will increase choice and push up standards as you say, Minister. It will also buy you votes from existing parents in the schools. As one of them said, “It was like winning the lottery,” when he learned that the taxpayer would be paying for his child’s school fees.
Minister: And it will give disadvantaged pupils the chance of a private education.
Sir Humphrey: Minister, I think you forget the advantage of a private education. It is so the pupils do not have to mix with the disadvantaged.
Minister: But the admission code applies to free schools…
Sir Humphrey: Minister, there are ways to circumvent the code.
Minister: But that’s outrageous! It’s a legal requirement.
Sir Humphrey: I doubt that anyone is going to police free school admission policies. When there are several of them then no-one except a few fanatics will bother to read their admission criteria. No-one will complain. The parents will be happy to support a policy which sends out a message that discourages the disadvantaged. And their children will look impressive in their distinctive uniform, especially if it comes from the same supplier that provides uniforms for Eton.
Minister: “No ASDA blazers welcome, here,” you mean?
Sir Humphrey: Quite so, Minister. It’s sometimes important to make changes unobtrusively. If I may remind you, the Coalition’s free school policy is more than just making a few parents happy. It is the means by which English schools can eventually be run by profit-making firms. It’s a way of siphoning tax-payers’ money into shareholders’ pockets. I shall deny it, of course, if asked directly.
Minister: But we’ve said that free schools will not make a profit.
Sir Humphrey: That is true, Minister. But it isn’t the schools making the profit, just the firms that run them. However, it is wise not to draw attention to the matter. Might I suggest that we keep plugging synthetic phonics instead? It was a major coup to make its use mandatory. And international research backs you up: Eurydice
has underlined the importance of phonics.
Minister: But didn’t Eurydice also find that the use of phonics was already widespread in the UK? That might prompt people to ask why we should make it a legal requirement.
Sir Humphrey: That should be of no concern, Minister. Both the Lib Dems and Labour support synthetic phonics. And the last US President said, “You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.”
Minister: And that’s what is important, isn’t it? Ensuring that as many pupils as possible pass their literacy test. But didn’t Eurydice also stress the importance of reading for pleasure, books in the home and so on?
Sir Humphrey: Indeed so, Minister, but that is the responsibility of parents. That is why the Secretary of State cancelled funding for Bookstart last year.
Minister: But there was a national outcry.
Sir Humphrey: That was unfortunate but the Government listened to the people and reinstated the funding.
Minister: But wasn’t it funded at only half its previous level for two years?
Sir Humphrey: The important thing, Minister, is that the Government listened to the people.
Minister: Sir Humphrey, what is your opinion about streaming children according to ability? The OECD
has found that the best-performing schools systems in the world tend not to segregate pupils in this way. And on the ninth of December the TES published the results of research showing that setting could be causing more harm than good.
Sir Humphrey: The research was actually mixed, Minister. In which case, we can opt for the finding which most suits our policies. One mustn’t forget that your supporters in the media strongly back Grammar Schools. It’s common sense, Minister.
Minister: But the evidence?
Sir Humphrey: Common sense will always trounce evidence, Minister.