Michael Gove speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories' bid to close Sulivan primary school is a triumph of ideology over evidence

The plan to demolish the award-winning primary to build a free school shows contempt for parents and for children.

Last week in the Commons, I asked Michael Gove  to save Sulivan Primary School in Hammersmith & Fulham from closure. Sulivan is currently rated the 233rd best primary school in the country which comfortably places it in the the top two per cent in England and Wales. The school holds over 300 pupils, from diverse and different social backgrounds, with over 30 different languages spoken. It is a model of an modern inclusive community primary. Recent accolades include a letter from Education minister David Laws praising the school and Boris Johnson placing the school in his "Gold Club list".

Despite all this, the school finds itself threatened with closure by the local Conservative council. One of the school’s few remaining hopes lies with Gove, who could grant Sulivan’s application to become an academy, removing it from the grip of what he calls the "dead hand" of local authorities.

So what was his response when I asked him to save Sulivan? First, he praised Hammersmith & Fulham Council – the enemy of Sulivan. Then he noted that Sulivan is not in my constituency (though some of its pupils live there), but that of Tory MP Greg Hands – whose silence on Sulivan’s fate has been total. Finally, he said I should not deny a good education to others since I had attended an independent school.

Gove’s response is typical of the way he operates, and shows why teachers and parents are losing any respect they had for him. But it is revealing nonetheless.  Firstly, he – like the Conservatives in Hammersmith & Fulham – thinks a good school must be a free school or academy, or an independent. Thus he ignores the evidence and disparages the majority of excellent schools in the country.

Secondly, he prejudges the decision on Sulivan – he will adopt unquestioningly the decision of fellow Tories to close Sulivan, rather than doing his job by considering its application for academy status.

Thirdly, he shows contempt for the hundreds of children, parents, staff and supporters of Sulivan by turning a reasonable request into a bit of silly political sparring.

The Tories’ proposal is to close and demolish Sulivan in order that a Church of England secondary boys’ free school can be built on its site. Officially, the council maintains that no decision has been made but Gove’s letter to me in January rather gave the game away. The Sulivan debate is not, as the Education Secretary would have it, a community versus free school battle with both sides in their trenches. Unlike Gove, the Sulivan campaigners are not prejudiced. They do not attack free schools, church schools, or this school in particular. Indeed Sulivan’s application to remain in business is as an academy is sponsored by the London Diocesan Board for Schools – which, in recognition of its excellence and ethos, wishes to adopt it as a community school in preference to a Church of England school taking its site.

They do, however, object to the personal and political ties between the senior local Tories and some of the free school’s sponsors. But this is something on which the Tories have form. It is only a few years since Peterborough primary – Sulivan’s neighbour – was closed to provide accommodation for a lycee sponsored by the French government. I should declare an interest – I went to Peterborough too.

Hammersmith & Fulham will not use capital to expand community schools despite a shortage of places. New schools are opening across the borough but they must be free schools or academies, even though one of these is already in the top 50 most unequal schools in the country (when eligibility for free school meals among pupils is compared to that in the catchment area) 

The Sulivan case is compelling and is receiving a lot of public attention for one reason only. The Conservatives are trying to close a great school for ideological and partisan reasons. No one should defend that, least of all the Secretary of State for Education.

Andy Slaughter is MP for Hammersmith and shadow justice minister

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder