The TES debate - Free schools: a better education for all, or a panacea for pushy parents?

23rd April 2010 at 01:00
When writer Toby Young, who is campaigning to set up a school in west London, locked horns with the NUT's Kevin Courtney at a TES debate, there were some in the audience who feared that fisticuffs were almost inevitable

As Toby Young took to the stage this week to argue the pros of Tory free-schools policy, there were those in the audience who feared for his life.

The impish journalist and author, who wants to set up his own parent-led school in west London, had been invited to go head to head with NUT deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney in a TES debate in Ealing, west London, on Tuesday.

As the two stood side by side it seemed as though the union chief would lean across, pick up his counterpart and swallow him whole. Mr Courtney stands closer to seven feet than six, and so mismatched were they that together the two looked more like father and son than the show's two prize fighters.

The NUT man was asked to go first. Setting out his stall, Mr Courtney said he was in favour of some of Mr Young's aims: smaller schools, more parental involvement, smaller class sizes and the ability to collaborate with local schools.

However, that is when the agreement stopped. Mr Courtney speaks in a lilting north-eastern accent, which can be deceptively reassuring. Indeed, when he becomes animated his voice threatens to break into a sea shanty.

But he is a firebrand union man and before long his debate became every bit the preacher's sermon.

He dismissed Mr Young's "comprehensive grammar school" as a "vegetarian butcher".

He warned the parents gathered in the audience of the dangers of a Conservative government, of "putting their children ahead of others". And he whipped himself up into a greater frenzy as he accused Mr Young of being a right-wing Tory.

Mr Young began his own impassioned argument for his proposed school - not only necessary but also a good idea, he said.

The balding author, who came to fame in the Nineties with his book How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, speaks in a clipped manner as though he is trying to get out as many words in a single breath as he can.

Demand was outstripping supply when it came to schools in his area, he said. And even with the welcome Building Schools for the Future money that has been promised to the local authority, pupil numbers will still outstretch capacity in the area in the coming decade.

Mr Young promised that his school would be open to all comers regardless of background. "We don't want to create a middle-class, bijou school," he said, perhaps missing the irony that only middle-class bijou parents are likely to use the word "bijou".

To compound the situation, he added that he, like his fellow parent campaigners, simply wanted a school teaching seven or eight core subjects, including Latin. Latin was the thing that the Young coterie wants more of.

But what stirred the audience most was Mr Young's proposal that a private company should be contracted to do the day-to-day running of the school. This was a blue rag to a union bull red with rage.

Both speakers made some appeals across the divide, with Mr Courtney noting he had supported parents' campaigns for new schools while Mr Young stressed that his institution would have a comprehensive admissions policy.

However, the stand-off was heightened by audience comments. One parent, who attended the debate complete with child, sounded as though he had stepped straight from a Dickens novel.

He labelled Mr Courtney "grotesque" for suggesting the union knew how to educate a child better than its parents.

And from fiction the debate fell to pantomime as a teacher, trembling with rage, stood up to castigate the audience for their "sneers" at state education. "I don't want to make this a class war," he said before doing exactly that.

The audience was divided at the beginning, and by the end, as the chairman - TES Opinion editor Michael Shaw - put it, the debate had done more to "clarify battle-lines than build bridges".

What the audience would agree on, however, is that they can't wait for round two.

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