I’ve never met Michael Gove, but I grew to respect him over the last few years. I defended his policy of free schools. I struggled to keep something like that – something eminently Liberal based on the Danish and Swedish models – in the Lib Dem manifesto. I still think its an important idea.
And every time I wander around Croydon where I live I feel confirmed in that feeling. There was nothing so disempowering to parents than the Blairite roll-out of ‘choice’ of schools. It has left us as pathetic, powerless supplicants in places like south east London where there are not nearly enough places, and certainly not where anyone civilised might consider sending their children.
When the state doesn’t work effectively, people need to be given the power to do it themselves. That’s the energetic, imaginative and above all Liberal way.
But it seems to me that Gove has misjudged the academy business. It is all very well dressing up academies as some version of localism, but – in fact – making schools shift from being supplicants to their town hall to being distant supplicants to Whitehall isn’t localism at all. It is the most disempowering centralisation.
Yes, give teachers the flexibility they need, but give them the context where they can actually exercise control, and persuade people who have some local knowledge if they need more money. Don’t cast them into the Whitehall jungle.
The new government has not yet grasped the key idea about localism, for all its localist rhetoric: centralisation leads to sclerosis. You can’t win just by letting go, but you have to start that way. But you can’t win either by tightening your grip and paying quango-style salaries to a new generation of headteachers.
Free schools are right. You improve schools by letting the parents in, and the local business community, and all the other locals, and - if they don't come - then you go to them. You don’t improve them – not in the end – by handing them over to the quangocrats and corporates and the Whitehall controllers.