By Paul Goodman
The point of LeftWatch is to watch the left. This leaves me in a dilemma about whether the subject of this piece fits the bill. Any sensible observer would conclude that the campaign that he's involved with – the Local Schools Network (LSN) – is, broadly speaking, of the left. A clue's provided by two of its four leading lights, who are well plugged in to the left establishment. One is Fiona Millar, formerly a special adviser to Tony Blair (and Alistair Campbell's partner). Another is Melissa Benn, a left-wing writer on education, and Tony Benn's daughter.
Which is all well and good, or at least in order. Old-fashioned socialists have just as much right to set up a Local Schools Network as more progressive ones have to work with conservatives and liberals in the New Schools Network (which the first organisation is clearly intended to mirror). But the third member of this gang of four – the last runs a training company and is a Chair of Governors – has changed his views so often that I wonder whether he belongs here at all.
Francis Gilbert is a teacher and writer. I appreciate that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and all that, but…well, you must make up your minds yourselves. Here are some of the views of one of the mainstays of the LSN.
On selection, he's against it –
"What we need is a much fairer education system, where all children are given an equal chance, where selection is abolished…" (Guardian, 27 April 2010)
– although he was for it –
"[His ideas] would result in some schools selecting by ability. That's fine by me and should be fine for the Left: the best way of lifting bright but poor kids out of poverty is to put them in an environment with other bright, academically minded pupils." (Evening Standard, 6 January 2005).
On school choice, he's against it –
"…The Conservatives' plans to introduce a "free market" into the school system could cause very severe problems with popular schools being vastly over-subscribed and less popular ones being left to rot. This is already happening to a certain extent, but the Conservatives' plans will mean that the drift in this direction will see popular schools splitting at the seams while the unpopular ones starve to death." (Guardian, 27 April 2010)
– although, again, he was for it –
"I passionately believe in redistributing resources in society and in education. The current system is not doing that. Vouchers and proper freedom for schools might. Every parent could be issued with vouchers representing the money the Department for Education gives local authorities for their child or children… if independent schools could provide the education for the price of the voucher, fine. Such a system would get rid of the problem of surplus places at some schools and others in the same area being oversubscribed." (Evening Standard, 6 January 2005).
On more freedom for teachers over the curriculum, he's against it –
"These schools will be allowed to convert into semi-independent academies as early as September this year if the Tories win, giving them more power over the curriculum, qualifications, staff, budgets and, most crucially, admissions… we will see a free-for-all which will fracture our communities and corrupt school standards even further." (Guardian, 27 April 2010)
– although, not so long ago, he was…well, you've guessed it –
"What teachers like me want is to be freed of the shackles of an over-prescriptive, leaden curriculum and be freed to teach children the essentials they will need to live fulfilling lives." (Guardian, 29 August 2009).
The first belief of the LSN is that –
"Every child has a right to go to an excellent local state school, enabling every child to achieve their full potential."
And yet… Gilbert authored a book, entitled "Working the System," which attempted to answered the question for parents –
"Can I "do a Tony Blair" and avoid sending my child to the local sink school?" (Francis Gilbert, Working the System: How to Get the Very Best State Education for Your Child.) In it, Gilbert offered 'expert tips" to parents who are "traipsing round" looking for good schools: "If you do hunt down a good school and get your child into it, you'll be saving yourself much work and stress in the long run… Happy hunting and good luck." (Guardian, 7 October 2008).
The second belief is that "Every state school should have a fair admissions procedure" –
Which, at one point at least, Gilbert believed was consistent with vouchers –
"If the Government were serious about transforming schools, especially for poorer children, it would embrace a much more radical solution: proper freedom for schools in everything from their admissions policies to the curriculum, and a voucher system that rewarded the best while forcing the worst to close' (Evening Standard, 6 January 2005).
The third belief is that "Every local school should be responsive to their parents and pupils' needs and wishes and be accountable to the local community" –
Which Gilbert once held should entail scrapping local educational authorities –
"If all the absurd bureaucracy of the Education Department, the LEAs and the numerous other quangos was swept away… then matters would improve…. I know only too well from personal experience what LEA advisers are like. They have become advisers because they can't hack it in the classroom. Often, they are glorified bureaucrats who weigh down teachers with extra targets and paperwork, and are adept at making things look better than they are." (Daily Telegraph, 2 February 2005)
The fourth belief is that "local schools in difficulties should be supported to improve, not attacked and demoralised" –
Which may or may not dovetail with his previous description of teaching at a state school –
"Some schools I've known have not been places of learning: they are bearpits of bullying. Over the years, I have been sworn at, jeered at, threatened, had missiles thrown at me, had to break up endless fights and watch constantly so that I didn't sit down on chairs spiked with pins and ripped cans. And that's just the kids. At times, trying to deal with a management which is intent upon meeting pointless and misleading targets is even more difficult, because of the atmosphere of fear that this creates… those kids most in need of higher standards, those from poor backgrounds, still mostly get a raw deal.' (Evening Standard, 6 January 2005)."
Some will see the transformation of his views as progress. Others – and for what it's worth, I'm one of them – as regress. As I say, we're all entitled to change our minds. But the contrasts are so striking, in this case, as to be worth recording.