Fiona Millar is a journalist and writer who specialises in education and parenting. She’s worked on the Daily Mirror, the Express, and as a lobby correspondent. She was a special advisor to Tony Blair from 1997 to 2003. Now, among other work, she writes a column for the Guardian. She was kind enough to give some of her time to Labour Teachers.
How did you get involved in education?
Apart from my own schooling, I got involved in education as a parent governor in the 1990s when my children started at what turned out to be a failing primary school. We were one of the first schools ever to undergo an Ofsted inspection which revealed serious weaknesses and led to a huge upheaval in staff, parents and the school’s reputation. It was the beginning of schools being part of a quasi market in education with diversity and choice as the mantras for decades to come. It was a very formative period for me, which I have written about in the Guardian and in my book “The Best for My Child”. Most of what I know about education is rooted in my experience as a governor and in my local community. I count myself very lucky to be able to specialise in this particular policy area as a journalist.
You are no longer a member of the Labour Party, why?
A combination of Brexit policies, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and the failure to tackle antisemitism in the party led me to quit several years ago.
What would it take for you to return to the party?
I am not sure, I quite like not being tied down by party membership. For the first time in my life I didn’t vote Labour in the European Elections of 2019 and it was quite liberating to be able to do what I really believed was right, rather than feeling obliged to act in a certain way because of what had become quite an arbitrary tie. I daresay that decision would be held against me even if I wanted to return but at the moment the Party isn’t inspiring me enough to consider it!
If you could have one change in education policy what would it be?
I would probably choose serious reform of the 14-19 period in secondary education along the lines of a final baccalaureate/diploma rather than continuing with A levels, GCSEs and the huge British problem of low status vocational qualifications. A final award that encompassed academic and vocational pathways AND wider curriculum/enrichment areas such as the arts, sport, civic activities would re-energise the entire secondary school experience for so many young people. It would also help us to move on from the current shameful situation where a third of pupils are condemned to leave school as failures according to an exam system which, post COVID, many people are seeing is failing in itself.
Ok, I’ll give you another, what would be your second change?
Reform of school admissions. The English system has always been bedevilled by a steep hierarchy of schools in part because so many can either select their intake covertly or overtly like the grammar schools. The 11 plus should be abolished as a first step with a pledge for a fully comprehensive system at the heart of any Labour manifesto. Selection of any sort has no part in a fair education system.
What’s something you’ve changed your mind the most about regarding education?
I have always thought the academy model, with schools taken out of local oversight and handed over to sponsors and contracted to the government, was a terrible mistake. Most people probably agree now that they seen what Michael Gove and the Tories have done with a reform that was intended by Labour to be very different. Nevertheless I reluctantly accept that, as there are so many academies and free schools, they are here to stay but we need to find a way to ensure there is better local oversight, that they play their part in the local family of schools and are obliged to follow the same rules.