Am I the only one to feel a steady sense of disquiet when reading Toby Young’s rather vitriolic comments on The Guardian’s news splash on Free School funding? From someone who is attempting to lead the vanguard of the Free Schools movement, it is somewhat surprising then that the words “dunce’s corner” and “antediluvian teaching unions” should stray forth from the mouth of one who will be in charge of a teaching institution. In a blog for the Telegraph, that is precisely what has happened.
Forgive me for thinking that the phrase “dunce’s corner” was consigned to the history books in forward thinking institutions and that educational reform had erased this sort of language. Perhaps I have missed something about the esteemed Mr Young. Perhaps I mistook him for someone who cared about teaching and the way that educational professionals present themselves in public. Political mudslinging is not something I associate with the best leaders in education. Toby Young’s language in reaction to The Guardian’s entirely justifiable news article on how the taxpayer’s money is spent suggests to me that he has not considered what it means to lead an educational organisation.
This is only compounded by scathing reference to teaching unions. One of the first things a teacher learns when starting on their educational journey is that no matter what you do, become a member of a union as it may prove invaluable if something goes wrong. In schools where unions are belittled and marginalised, discontent and mistrust become endemic. Teachers need to feel protected within an increasingly litigious society. Some of the best head teachers I have worked with value the input of the variety of unions and understand the impact of having a comfortable workforce who have an organisation to turn to when things go wrong, as inevitably, they do. Perhaps I mistake Toby Young’s meaning when he calls unions ‘antediluvian’; maybe he does value their work and understand why they are necessary. Or maybe a man of his background, educational experience and life story finds it difficult to see why they may be of value, even when they protest and disagree and, God forbid, defend the rights of teachers regardless of the political party in power.
He also states that The Guardian stands alone in its criticism of Free Schools. I beg to differ. There are many who have been critical of Michael Gove’s education reforms; many of those are experienced teachers who understand what those so called reforms actually mean for students and parents and communities. Those critics aren’t sceptical because they have a political agenda – they are sceptical because the world they’ve worked incredibly hard to build is being turned on its head. This doesn’t make them dunces, it makes them cautious about change, which in some circumstances can only be a positive thing. Caution and questioning are essential in educational reform; they don’t prevent change, they merely interrogate it. If Toby Young doesn’t appreciate the need for interrogation, close scrutiny and the possibility that some people may criticise, he’s entering the wrong profession.
Do I support the creation of Free Schools? My own misgivings lie in the possibility that they may engender greater division in communities, particularly in terms of faith and inter-faith understanding. I admire the sentiments behind some of the faith organisations creating Free Schools, however, I suspect that just because you say that a school is open to everyone in reality it will be known as a school devoted to a particular faith and remain closed to those of different faiths and none. Do I believe that Free Schools will drive up standards? In some cases, possibly. It was said that the academies movement would change the face of education and it did do that, but did it drive up standards? In some cases, possibly. Declaring that one thing, in this case allowing parents, teachers and communities to set up their own schools, will single handedly raise attainment, close the achievement gap and increase social mobility, seems a little far fetched. I want to believe, but as a teacher and someone who likes to ponder on those things, I think healthy scepticism is allowed.
As a reader of The Guardian and someone who cares about how the government implement and finance educational reform, I can’t help but feel that, unintentionally or not, I have been called a dunce by Toby Young. Believe it or not, I’m not taking it too personally. I do worry that the West London Free School will be run by someone who doesn’t value a diversity of opinion or political differences. Someone who believes that it is acceptable to point and laugh at the lone voice in the “dunce’s corner”. What kind of message does that send to parents and children?