(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.