The reaction to the Trojan Horse scandal has, in my view, been as interesting – and telling – as anything in the scandal itself. It is not, of course, surprising that opposition parties, including the Liberal Democrats, should seek to make capital from the drama in Birmingham but the manner in which they do so remains valuably illuminating.
Gove-bashing plays well with the loyal remnants of the Lib Dem base and given the choice between pandering to his base or defending liberalism Nick Clegg must these days pander to his base. So be it.
The case of Tristram Hunt is more interesting. The dismal thing about Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour party is the manner in which he appears determined to abandon the noblest parts of his inheritance.
Despite 2008 And All That, Miliband was bequeathed a workable, even in some respects admirable, legacy. On a number of fronts including, but not limited to, playing by the EU’s rules on free movement of labour and the establishment of Academy schools Labour had a record of which it could be proud. It seems drearily typical that Miliband’s instincts are to disown the better parts of Labour’s record in government.
Hence the evident suspicion with which he views Free Schools. Labour would, perhaps will, scrap them if they think they can get away with it.
In this sense the Trojan Horse scandal reminds us that for all that we talk about narrowing differences between the warring Tory and Labour tribes there remain significant – and significantly important – philosophical differences between the two parties.
In broad terms, the Conservatives will trust you and Labour won’t. Nowhere is it written, or even thought, that every Academy or Free School will be a great success. Giving schools the freedom to succeed necessarily means granting them the freedom to fail too. That’s the way of the market. But it is a view predicated on the belief that, in time and in general, giving schools greater freedom will produce many more winners than losers.
It does not mean eliminating failure. How could it? Free schools don’t fail because they are free; they fail because some schools fail. But we trust that fewer will do so if more schools are free. It contrasts with a Labour tendency to excuse failure if that failure is state-approved. Many leftists will conclude that the problem in Birmingham is a lack of local authority control. What they mean, whether they mean to mean it or not, is that failure is fine if it is licensed by the state. Move along, heehaw to worry about here.
Which, naturally, is precisely the kind of attitude Blairism fought against. The Blairites are in retreat, however, and for proof of that we need cite no-one other than Tristram Hunt.
It would be best if no schools ran into trouble, best if all free schools were exemplary. It is the nature of things, however, that not all will be. But that’s the risk that comes from trust. Better that, though, than the alternative worldview which insists unaccountable local education authorities always know best. Better the freedom to fail – and be seen to fail – than maintaining the pretence there is no failure at all.
Sometimes those failures will prove embarrassing. Sometimes they will discredit the whole idea of free schools. But they are, forgive me, a necessary price. There will always, in any system, be troublesome or otherwise under-performing schools. What then matters is how those problems are addressed. For for too long the preferred approach was to pretend there were no problems at all. What, working with clay like this, could you expect anyway?
It’s that smug complacency that Blair (and Adonis) and now Michael Gove have tried to combat. The horrific fatalism that says improvement is impossible and probably hideously elitist too.
Which is why this controversy is actually an opportunity for the Conservatives. It can be used to remind voters that Labour’s instincts are once more to side with the bureaucracy against the individual. Its instincts are to prefer a bad school under local authority control to a good school that’s free of local authority control.
It’s a point of view, certainly, but not a noble one.
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