I was feeling pretty pleased with myself by the end of yesterday afternoon. The kids had just come home from school to start their half term and I had just finished writing my share of the stories for two collections of First World War Legends which I am co-writing with storyteller Taffy Thomas. Perfect timing. With a bit of luck, I thought, I can take a few hours off next week and spend some time with the family – and enjoy our new puppy. (Yes, anyone who read my blog post Dog Days will be pleased to hear that our puppy hunt ended successfully. Tomorrow we will be bringing home a new bundle of fluff in the shape of a gorgeous cavapoo puppy called Rula.)
So all in all, I felt like celebrating. Perhaps a good meal, a glass of chilled wine and a movie. But then I remembered that we had accepted an invitation from some friends and neighbours: a lovely couple who own a farm in our village. They are active members of the local Conservative Association and had invited my husband and I for wine and canapes with our local MP, Nadhim Zahawi.
Now, before you jump to any conclusions, I make no secret of the fact that I am not a member of the Conservative Party, and my political allegiance usually lies elsewhere. But I do love a good political argument. What’s more, I am naturally nosy and so I do like to keep up-to-date with what’s going on in my neighborhood and nearby Stratford-upon-Avon. And I am certainly never going to miss the chance to put a question or two to my local MP, particularly face to face.
We arrived at the event to find ourselves among a small and select group of about 15 or 16 – all of whom, apart from my husband and I, seemed to be members of the local Conservative Association. But we were made to feel very welcome and the wine, the canapes and the conversation were all flowing nicely. Luckily no one seemed to pick up on the fact that I am not a fellow believer.
Then Nadhim arrived, looking as dapper as ever, and began to make his way around the room. It was clear that he was well known and liked by everyone and was very much at home in such a gathering. Eventually, he came to join our small group and we launched into discussions as far ranging as HS2, immigration, apprenticeships and broadband services in rural areas. It was all going swimmingly well. We were all getting on like a house on fire. The discusssion was honest and open and informative and everyone seemed to be broadly in agreement and on the same page. But then Nadhim happened to mention free schools and what a fabulous job Mr Gove was doing.
I took a big gulp of red wine.
Everyone was nodding.
Clearly it was down to me.
Anyone who follows me on Facebook or Twitter knows that I am not Mr Gove’s biggest fan. His intentions may be good, but I believe his approach and many of his policies have a frightening agenda. The rush to provide and then to pronounce the ‘success’ of free schools is a perfect example. I asked Mr Zahawi why, if being able to employ non-qualified teachers is such a good idea, the same rule doesn’t apply to every school. And is it really such a good idea? Can we really disregard teachers’ professionalism in this way? It’s a policy which is bound to divide the politicians from the teachers and to alienate the very – and the only – people who can really deliver the higher standards which we all – not just Mr Gove – want to see. Teacher training is not a waste of time. Granted, a teaching qualification does not guarantee a good teacher – but at least it’s a start and, having been a Chair of Governors for seven years, it’s a baseline and a reassurance for employers.
I took another gulp of wine, then I challenged Mr Zahawi on the fact that free schools (and academies) do not need to follow the National Curriculum. If curriculum freedom is the key to higher standards, I asked, then why can’t all state schools set their own curriculum too? Why can’t they be trusted to do the same?
I tried to explain that Mr Gove’s approach, of offering free schoots and academies these two freedoms and not other maintained schools, simply makes me, and others, suspicious. It smacks of bribery, or a backdoor route to ensuring that sufficient numbers of free schools and academies are founded. The Government simply isn’t creating a level playing field. How can you really compare like with like? How can you honestly say that free schools and academies genuinely are more successful than maintained schools? .
Mr Zahawi suggested that I had been infuenced by media hype. He said that my arguments were typical of those which were rolled out by headline grabbing editors. But it’s funny because I don’t read many newspapers. I get my information from the many, many teachers I talk to every day in my job as a children’s writer, an educational publisher and in my school governance role. I listen to what the professionals are saying and I have 25 years of experience of doing so.
I want to see the very best standards in schools. I want to see teaching and learning improving. But I want to see those changes across the board. I want every state school in the country to be well supported and resourced. I don’t want to see budgets being cut in my local primary school (where there are free places, by the way) while millions go into settting up new schools in areas where, arguably, they may be wanted but are not necessarily most needed. I want the teachers in ALL schools to be recognised as the professionals that they are, not discounted and their views overlooked, and I want ALL of them to be given the freedom to set the best curriculum for the children they teach.
So Mr Zahawi, I think you are a smashing chap and I am so impressed by the fact that you are willing to give up your Friday night only to have your ear bent by people like me. I think the work you do for our constituency is second to none. Having met you I can see why you have secured a place on David Cameron’s No 10 Policy Board, advising on business, innovation and skills – and I wish you every success in that role. But on education – a subject about which I do know a little (without reading any tabloid headlines) – I don’t think your Party will get it right until you begin to work with teachers and governors across the board, and until you can honestly say that you are doing your very best for all stakeholders, not just the more priviledged ones or the ones who shout the loudest.