Overrated: Fiona Millar

The indefatigable enemy of education reform is making the job of free school champions easier

Education Overrated
(credit: Ellie Foreman-Peck)

The first time I set eyes on Fiona Millar was in the bowels of BBC Television Centre. Newsnight had made a short film about my efforts to set up a free school in West London and Fiona had been invited to participate in the live discussion that followed.

It was a bruising experience. Her modus operandi on these occasions is not to make one big point and then allow her opponent to respond, but to unleash everything in her arsenal at once, only stopping when the interviewer manages to get a word in edgeways. By the time it was my turn, I felt as if I’d been in the ring with Mike Tyson. I flailed around, trying to answer her criticisms as best I could, but she definitely won that bout. The item ended with Fiona saying she didn’t know why we were bothering to discuss “Toby’s school” since I was clearly never going to succeed.

That was in 2009 and when the West London Free School opened two years later I was tempted to remind her of this. By then, we’d become . . . not friends, exactly, but sparring partners. I’d been taught a valuable lesson by Millar which is that the reason these debates frequently become so heated is because, for the Left, education is an ideological battleground. Once I’d recognised Millar for what she was — not a concerned parent or a disinterested policy wonk, but a political bruiser with a socialist agenda — I found her easier to deal with. Debating with her was no different to debating Bob Crow or George Galloway. You just went toe-to-toe and slugged it out.

In that Newsnight debate — and in every subsequent encounter — Millar questioned my credentials as an educationist, but the same could be asked of her. She wears so many different hats it’s hard to know exactly what she does. She is a columnist for the Guardian, a blogger for The Truth About Our Schools, a co-founder of the Local Schools Network, the chair of Comprehensive Future, a spokesman for the Campaign for State Education and a patron of the Anti-Academies Alliance. The impression she gives is that she’s the figurehead for a vast army of campaigners, all determined to save our schools from evil reformers hell bent on “marketising” public education. But I’ve long suspected that the entire anti-reform movement is essentially just Fiona Millar dressing up in different outfits.

You can’t fault her energy. She’s an alpha female driven by a messianic political zeal. Scratch the surface and you soon discover that her opposition to academies and free schools, not to mention faith schools, grammar schools, private schools — anything that isn’t a “bog standard comprehensive”, in the words of her partner Alastair Campbell — is because she regards state education as a mechanism for the dissemination of socialist ideology.

In a 2006 piece for the pressure group Compass, jointly written with Melissa Benn, she set out her vision for comprehensive schools: “The comprehensive ideal remains the most vibrant statement possible of the sort of society many of us want to live in. Many people forget today that the comprehensive principle was founded on the idea of ‘equality of respect’ and ‘equal worth’; [. . .] At its best, such a school creates powerful social bonds that contribute to community cohesion and wellbeing.”

One of the reasons Millar is so fired up about Michael Gove’s education reforms is because she sees him as a right-wing version of herself. She dismisses his talk of granting taxpayer-funded schools more freedom and removing the dead hand of local authorities as just so much rhetoric. In reality, she believes he is intent on wresting control of public education from the Left so he can turn it over to the Right. He wants to “privatise” state education not just to enrich his friends like Rupert Murdoch, but so that the profiteering buccaneers he puts in charge of state schools can promote their own, free-market philosophy. It’s a zero-sum game, a battle to the death between two sides in an ideological war.

It’s this blinkeredness that makes Millar such a friend of reformers like me. Her whole personality seems to embody everything that’s unattractive about a top-down, state-controlled education system in which politics takes precedence over children’s welfare. After our first appearance on Newsnight, I was surprised by how many people got in touch to express sympathy. The standard response was: “Until now, I hadn’t realised what you were up against.” It turns out Millar is a brilliant campaigner after all — not for her own cause, but for that of her opponents. Which may help explain why she’s been on the losing side of every major policy debate in education for at least 15 years.

Thanks, in part, to Fiona Millar, more than half of England’s state secondary schools are now academies and the free schools movement is gaining momentum every day. Which is why I say, more power to her elbow. Keep on doing what you’re doing, Fiona. There is no better advertisement for the cause of education reform.