Friday, September 09, 2011

Cameron, Gove, the Free School (a door and a microphone...)

Up until around 9.30pm last night I had little idea I would be spending time today with the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Education, a large chunk of the political media and their entourage at the new Free School in Norwich, where I am a Governor.

The Free School here has always been low key and quiet. It has great support from people in all 3 major parties, has quietly worked on the project behind the scenes and hasn't exploded into the pages of the national papers in spats with unions, celebrities or the local population. In fact, quite the opposite, the Free School has been welcomed by the City. Certainly, being 4 times oversubscribed suggested so.

So today to find the world and their wife camped on the doorstep was quite a surprise. The shocked looking children were more than a little surprised themselves, I am sure (in fact, twice, I was asked if I was the Prime Miniser...)

I am used to the media hunting in packs but what surprised me in the build up to the speech, which has led the bulletins on the news for much of the day, was the number of Number 10 folk and the security services that buzz around the PM. His every move, every footstep, every encounter and every chair he sits on is perfectly worked out and choreorgraphed. The Number 10 handlers are quite brutal with the press - I suppose they have to be - and the press in return seemed to me to be decent and willing to play along. The audience was made up of the press huddle plus figures from the local educational community; actually quite a risk for the PM as the public Q&A afterwards could - but didn't - turn tricky.

I was in charge of a door. Ohhhh, yes. I was instructed that when I saw somebody who resembled the Prime Minister I was to open a door for him and the school principal, Tania Sidney-Roberts. The door only opened one way so without me, a nonplussed looking PM would be left standing looking in at the classroom. What a responsibility! I was even told to open the door well before Cameron reached me, for to open the door outwards when the PM was too close *may* result in me striking, nay assassinating, the British Prime Minister. The instructions were so tight and so precise, I wondered if I was up for this herculean task.

As it happens, my door opening was quite the remarkable success and I feel that everything that followed was as a direct result. In fact, should Mr Cameron go onto success in the 2015 General Election, people may trace it back to this education speech which he gave, unharmed from being smacked in the face by a door.

As the PM spoke to the teachers and saw the school ICT Cloud in operation I whisked off to see the great-and-the-good (local MPs, Headteachers, etc etc) and also Secretary of State Michael Gove. I am, as regular readers will know, a massive - MASSIVE - Gove fan. As a teacher and as a voter, I find him impressive, lucid and intellectually on top of his brief. Being able to tell him parts of the story of the Free School was a very enjoyable conversation.

But hang on, dear blog readers, just as I thought I could settle down in the second row to watch the PM speak, another shock. The Number 10 handlers felt that following my triumph with the door, I was to be promoted to holding a microphone. Luckily, unlike a certain former PM, I had the sense to check it was off before gossiping with colleagues. Anyway, should the mic at the podeum fail, I was the backup plan!! What joy; though luckily no such disaster occurred. Then when the question session started I was to leap to my feet and offer the mic to those asking the posers to the PM. I was, if I may say, like a cat. The first question was asked by my own Headteacher, Brian Conway at Notre Dame, and I think my passing of a mic looked more like a "lunge" and I nearly smacked him on the head with the furry end. Now that would have been embarrassing. Luckily Brian - clearly a semi-pro himself - grabbed the mic and settled me on my feet. If I had of crushed Nick Robinson beneath my 16 stone frame I would never have forgiven myself, although parts of the Westminster Village may have nominated me for a CBE.

It's odd how the easiest of jobs seem incredible tense when the Prime Minister is watching and waiting for you and where the menial nature of the task is outweighed by the cringe factor should you get it wrong. Its not as if I haven't done press conferences, met David Cameron before, or been on the TV live. Just today I had the image in my head of things going wrong and was desperately trying to stop them actually happening.

Anyway, Cameron's delivery was - as always - extremely good. He is very impressive in real life; even the Labourites in the audienc said so. The speech wasn't too long and easy for the audience to engage with. Most importantly his messages of academic rigour, freedom for schools and the like were all spot on. He had new ideas to announce. The speech wasn't too detailed; I'm not sure it was meant to be. It felt more like the start of a debate than anything else. For example if you cut benefits from homes where kids truant, what would you do the parents of truants who aren't on benefits? It is slightly strange to watch a speech from 6 foot away where somebody is usuing the autocues. The new transparent ones look great on TV but up close it always looks as if the speech maker is looking into the middle distance rather than at the audience. With so many nodding heads around me, Mr Cameron might have got great faith for his ideas by looking down at us!

Michael Gove is a very warm person I find - he always remembers who I am ("a great man in so many ways," he flattered me with ... I am sure he says that to everyone he meets) and can instantly recall when you last met and what you spoke about. With Mr Cameron - and this is not a criticism because we have met about 4 times and he probably meets a hundred or more people a day - he is more about listening to your story and what you have to say on issues.

On education I find myself in 99.9% agree with this government; something not all policy areas achieve. The PM and Mr Gove were kind and generous about the Free School and were genuinely impressed with it all. They left with great knowledge that the policy, here in Norwich, was working well.

So as you settle down to watch the PM on TV tonight, think of those small moments, with doors and mics, that make great speeches what they are.

No comments: