This interview with Toby Young originally appeared on the Parliament Street website.
With the venom they elicit from the left and the suspicion (or is that opportunism?) they engender within the breasts of the Conservatives’ own Coalition partners, you’d be forgiven for thinking free schools were the brainchild of Mr Burns’ Springfield Republican Party in conclave at the Temple of Doom.
Those with good memories, however, will remember the Tories’ inspiration for free schools came from that hip, socialist, paradise across the North Sea – Sweden – which is just where Toby Young has been this week as the guest of the Swedish Free School Association.
Whether their hospitality extended to meatballs and Daim cake was never established within the confines of our interview but, as a sort of lobby group/trade association for free schools, this country is in desperate need of something similar, he says, particularly with a general election on which their future will rest now only ten short months away.
“We need to smoke out the Lib Dems and Labour and force them to admit that they’d make life difficult for free schools if either of them are elected”
With the traditional education provided by his own West London Free School making it he most over-subscribed in Hammersmith and Fulham and Oftsed ranking it ‘good’ with ‘outstanding’ behaviour, the Conservatives should make the success of this model a focus of the campaign ahead of the real pay-off after the election – exam results.
“I hope the Conservatives do talk about free schools during the election campaign,” he says. “I think we’re going to win that election and if free schools have been a campaign issue that will give the next Secretary of State for Education a mandate to expand the programme.
“Another reason is to smoke out the Lib Dems and Labour and force them to admit that they’d make life difficult for free schools if either of them are elected. That way, when the first cohort of free school pupils do well in their GCSEs in 2016, as I expect them to, the Conservatives will be able to point to those results and say, Look at how well these free school pupils have done. If Labour or the Lib Dems had had their way, these schools would have been shut down.”
Toby shares this writer’s convictions about the Tories’ prospects in next year’s elections as, indeed, might the Labour and Lib Dem big knobs. Nice-sounding policy pledges about the ‘right’ of every child to be taught by a qualified teacher have been doing the rounds lately, not least from Nick Clegg, who himself received a rather expensive education from ‘unqualified’ teachers at Westminster School. The rub? It would be impossible to enforce.
“Very little of the average PGCE course is devoted to classroom practice. It’s mainly just a lot of bad theory”
“I think it will be difficult for Labour or the Lib Dems to enforce that policy. If they force free schools and academies to sack teachers without qualified teacher status, those employees will be able to take those schools to the cleaners at employment tribunals.
“Alternatively, they could insist that free schools and academies don’t employ any more teachers without qualified teacher status, but to do that they’d have to change their Funding Agreements. That’s quite difficult to do, as Ed Balls discovered in 2007 when he tried to force academies to teach the National Curriculum and failed. The could try passing a new law to that effect, but it could easily be struck down by the European Court of Human Rights.
“People often compare teachers to doctors and say you wouldn’t want your child to be treated by an unqualified doctor so why would you entrust their education to an unqualified teacher? But there’s a world of difference between a PGCE and a medical degree.
“You can do a PGCE in six months. It takes seven years to become a qualified doctor. And very little of the average PGCE course is devoted to classroom practice. It’s mainly just a lot of bad theory. Frankly, if you’re a graduate who wants to get into teaching, you’re better off not bothering with a PGCE.”
“I quite like UKIP – that saloon bar humour strikes a chord with me – but the party’s high command is not serious about power”
One might be tempted to think the Lib Dems are busily making empty promises on the understanding they will be, perhaps happily, repatriated to the backbenches as nothing more than a rump come May. It’s hardly a tactic they’re unfamiliar with. But Toby believes Clegg’s party will recover some ground as they begin to disassociate themselves from the Conservatives, the Labour vote collapses and voters get bored of the amusing but essentially ineffectual UKIP.
“I think the UKIP vote peaked last May,” he says. “It’s all downhill from here. The party’s support is too dependent on Nigel Farage and, congenial though he is, he’s basically a one-trick pony and the electoral is getting bored with seeing him perform the same trick over and over again. Even UKIP hardliners are falling out of love with him.
“The fact that the party doesn’t have a coherent programme of government is symptomatic of the fact that it’s not, at bottom, a serious party. I quite like UKIP – that saloon bar humour strikes a chord with me – but the party’s high command is not serious about power. It’s just a protest party that has filled the vacuum now that the Lib Dems have become a party of government.”
David Cameron will likely only be able to muster a small majority, Toby says, but the bottom line is voters will not be willing to hand Ed Miliband the keys to Number 10. What’s becoming increasingly obvious to voters – and will inform their decision at the ballot box – is that UKIP would quite happily be their estate agents