I never thought I'd say this, but I'd like to thank the National Union of Teachers for striking a blow in favour of free schools. Totally unintentionally, of course. The bug-eyed Trots who run the most militant of the teaching unions have spent a small fortune on a YouGov poll in the mistaken belief that it would show that free schools are deeply unpopular in those areas where they're being set up. In fact, it reveals that parental support for the Coalition's education reforms is far more widespread than Michael Gove could have dared to hope.
YouGov interviewed 1021 parents in the 22 local authorities where the first wave of 25 free schools are due to open next September. The NUT claims the results show "a clear rejection of the Government's flagship education proposal", when in reality they show nothing of the kind.
For instance, when asked whether they thought there was a need for a new school in their area, 47% of parents said there was, compared to 46% who said there wasn't. So that's a higher percentage of parents supporting the establishment of new schools than opposing them.
They were then asked what the most important criterion was when it came to deciding whether a new school should be set up. A whopping 32% identified parental demand as the deciding factor, compared to only 14% who cited the support of the local council. That's a ringing endorsement of the Coalition's policy of allowing free schools to be set up where there is sufficient parental demand, rather than allowing local authorities to be the ultimate arbiters of whether a new school is needed.
The parents were also asked who they thought should be responsible for setting up new schools. 46% said "a group of teachers" and 25% said "a group of parents". Not exactly "a clear rejection of the Government's flagship education proposal".
The most unpopular choice was a "private company" (15%) and Christine Blower, the general secretary of the NUT, has latched on to this as conclusive proof that the Coalition's education reforms have been comprehensively rejected by the public. "This survey clearly shows that parents absolutely reject the premise of their children's education being handed over to private companies," she said in a press release issued late last night.
In fact, all the survey tells us is that 15% of respondents think private companies would be the most appropriate groups to run new schools. It doesn't tell us what percentage are opposed to private companies running state schools since they weren't asked that. But it's irrelevant in any case since the Coalition isn't proposing to allow private companies to set up new schools. It's typical of the NUT's strategy of trying to whip up opposition to free schools by spreading lies and misinformation about them, presumably because Christine Blower knows that if she stuck to the facts very few people would oppose them.
Another dirty trick the NUT has engaged in is to wildly exaggerate just how meagre the facilities will be at free schools, making a huge to-do about the fact that proposers will be allowed to set them up in former shop spaces, offices, and the like. The parents surveyed by YouGov were asked how much importance they attached to things like "outside play area", "assembly hall" and "library". Not surprisingly, they valued these things very highly. But it is misleading to imply that most free schools won't have these facilities. Yes, some will be set up in buildings that haven't been used for educational purposes before, but they'll be extensively refitted before the schools open for business. At the West London Free School, for instance, we'll have outside place space, an assembly hall and a library.
It's tempting to laugh off this feeble attempt to propagandize against educational reform. After all, it's not as if we don't know the NUT's motive. It's worried that the greater flexibility free schools will have over pay and conditions will make it easier for them to sack bad teachers. (As Panorama revealed last year, only 18 teachers in the UK have been sacked for incompetence in the last 40 years.) Academies enjoy the same freedoms and that is why the NUT has campaigned so energetically against them and behaved in such a threatening manner towards the head teachers and governing bodies of outstanding state schools that want to convert to Academy status. (For chapter and verse on this, see this Spectator investigation.)
But it's no laughing matter. The NUT has begun 2011 as it means to continue, throwing its considerable resources into campaigning against free schools. Today it's an opinion poll. Tomorrow it will be a mob of Socialist Workers Party thugs. For those of us at the forefront of educational reform, 2011 is going to be a challenging year.