The Da Vinci Code is the most famous of Dan Brown’s utterly dreadful books about Havard “made-up-subject-ologist” Robert Langdon and his curiously obsessive if largely accidental war on the Catholic Church, but it wasn’t the first. That book, entitled Angels and Demons, I first read as bookshop assistant on my lunchbreak, choosing it from the free, pre-release paperback samples (sent constantly to bookshops) on the broken shelf in our subterranean staffroom. The cover was cleverly designed, so that whichever way up it was held, the title still appeared: the gaps in the word “angels” spelling “demons” and vice versa. This morphed into the book’s story, in which those who should be saintly turn out to be sinners and nothing is as it seems; ultimately, pleasingly, it’s all solved by a very clever man with a doctorate. I was sixteen, into conspiracy theories, and I thought it was terribly good.
I say this, for today should have brought another epic confrontation between a brilliant young holder of a PhD and a shadowy, sinister mastermind operating in the shadow of a great church (the DfE’s Sanctuary Buildings stand just behind the imposing edifice of Westminster Abbey). Sadly, Michael Gove (he’s the mastermind in case this tortured link got lost there) didn’t bother to turn up to confront Dr Tristram Hunt, newly-minted Shadow Education Secretary, so we got David Laws instead; as though, to move film metaphors completely, Bond rocked up to the volcano lair to find not Blofeld but just the pretty little cat.
Still, the showdown was on the question of the al-Madinah free school, which has now been operating in Derby for a year, and has just received what must rank amongst the worst Ofsted reports of all time. In such a circumstance, it should have been clear who was on the side of the angels: the Labour Party, attacking Gove for having permitted this terrible school to open and serve students, despite repeated warnings about the weaknesses of this school in particular, and the general lack of due diligence on free schools in general.
But Laws, feline-like if not feline-looking, wriggled free: when Hunt announced, “It is not just Al-Madinah school which is dysfunctional. It is the education secretary’s free schools policy”, Laws suddenly proclaimed that actually al-Madinah was evidence of the success of free schools. On the one hand, he thundered, most free schools weren’t like al-Madinah, and on the other hand, that al-Madinah was being so ruthlessly intervened with was in stark contrast to all the failing schools Labour had left behind. The Tory whips had clearly decided to back their honorable friend in the LibDems and duly marched in MPs to proclaim how dreadful Hunt was for bringing up a failing free school but not any other type of school, and how he’d done a U-turn on support for free schools. The angelic doctor was revealed to be a demonic dogmatist; he was the sinister shadow in education policy, not Michael Gove.
This is, of course, nonsense. Three points need to be made clear: 1) Hunt has made no U-turns; 2) bringing up al-Madinah in the House was right and necessary and Gove should not be permitted to evade the very serious questions he has to answer over that school; 3) Coalition claims that they are ruthlessly intervening in all failing schools are demonstrably false.
On the first count, claims Hunt has changed his position from Sunday do not stand up: under Stephen Twigg and now Hunt, Labour has committed itself to the retention of all currently-existing free schools where they are good; no one has turned on excellent examples of the type, like School21 or even Toby Young’s West London Free School. However, Labour has voiced serious concerns over the level of due diligence performed by the DfE in setting up free schools; in his Sunday interview on Andrew Marr, Hunt specifically referenced al-Madinah as an example of the kind of mistakes that have been made. This is why Labour will offer “social entrepreneurs” who want to establish new schools the chance to establish Parent-Led Academies (PLAs) using more stringent criteria than the current free school system. That is no U-turn.
On the question of why this school was raised at this time in that place, where else should Hunt have raised the problems of al-Madinah? The Secretary of State for Education is, by virtue of the funding agreements for free schools, the legal authority with oversight of them – it is entirely proper this be raised in the House. What is not at all proper is that the Secretary of State did not bother to turn up to answer these questions. A teacher asked this morning if I believed Gove should resign over al-Madinah; at present, I would answer ‘no’ – I think ministerial resignations rarely solve anything as often the problem runs deeper than a single individual. But Gove does have questions to answer: what went wrong in the application stage for free schools which permitted al-Madinah to get this far? Why were the pre-opening warnings from Ofsted not heeded? What has changed in the assessment of new free school applications which will prevent this from happening again? How, if necessary, will this school be closed and the students’ well-being safeguarded? These questions may have excellent answers, but Gove himself should give them. If he continues to dodge these questions, then it is entirely fair to say Gove’s free school policy is in trouble and he himself is in trouble. Schools must be accountable and so must ministers.
Gove, and indeed Laws, should also account for the misleading of the House which went on today. Laws repeatedly claimed that the current government is ruthlessly intervening to improve failing schools. That would be news to the parents of Seven Sisters Primary School in Tottenham, which was found to be inadequate by Ofsted a year ago, and should therefore have been found an academy sponsor to take on running it and begin improving it from the woeful state it finds itself in. However, the failed management are still in place, some of them key leaders of the ferocious and wrong-headed attempt to prevent the Harris Federation from taking on and improving neighbouring primaries. The local authority is powerless to do anything about it because responsibility now lies with the DfE. Presently, a new free school is being considered for Hornsey, wealthier neighbour of Tottenham, yet a poorly-performing, mismanaged primary–in the heart of a deprived community–has gone entirely unaided.
There are few in the Labour Party who have been more vociferously in favour of the kind of ruthless intervention against failure which Laws proclaimed the government was performing, and few more willing to endorse the freedoms of free schools than I have been but today, I found myself incredulous at the way Laws and his Tory colleagues responded to a sensible and necessary question about their policy with an attempt to demonise the opposition and mislead about their own weaknesses. Gove dodged an important test. Education reform deserves better than being made a cheap political thriller.