Where are the dividing lines on free schools?

With just over a year until the election it is worth considering exactly where the dividing lines are between the major political parties on education. Identifying them is tricky. This government has pursued an ambitious agenda, including overseeing the most significant change to the school landscape in a generation through the introduction of converter academies and free schools and a radical overhaul of the examination system. In opposition Labour has, to put it politely, picked its battles carefully. They have chosen to remain largely silent on a number of issues and instead used a couple of key themes and policies to attack the Gove agenda.

Free schools are an obvious place to start. Labour has got itself into something of a tangle over the free school programme. In part this is a legacy of their time in government. From most angles free schools and converter academies look like a logical extension of the original academies programme introduced by the Blair government. Indeed Andrew Adonis, one of the key architects of that policy, says as much in his book. However, long-running distrust amongst elements of the party about the autonomy agenda and the realities of the free schools programme have put increasing pressure on them to take a stand. Both Tristram Hunt and his predecessor Stephen Twigg have said Labour would put an end to the free schools programme. Quite what that means was for a long time unclear. Hunt has ruled out the possibility of returning schools to local authority control and has offered the prospect of ‘parent-led academies’ as an alternative to free schools. As articulated so far these parent-led academies sound a bit too good to be true, having all of the benefits of free schools but apparently none of the downsides. Perhaps the most important difference is that they will only be opened in ‘areas of need’.

In a recent speech on the subject Hunt attempted to articulate the philosophical differences between the free schools programme and Labour’s alternative. He characterised the free school programme as a free market approach that accepted or even welcomed the possibility of failure. Labour, by contrast, supported autonomy, innovation and ‘competition of esteem’. This type of competition is apparently different to the rough and tumble of the free market. Schools will ‘compete’ to provide an excellent education but there will be no winners and losers. All schools will be supported to become outstanding and no new schools will be opened in areas where there is limited need for places. This analysis rests on a rather uncharitable characterisation of the free schools programme. Even free schools are too tightly regulated to be part of anything like the law of the jungle type free market that Hunt suggests, and recent high-profile interventions by Ofsted would suggest anything but a welcoming of ‘creative destruction’.

Nonetheless there is a hint here of a genuine divide between the parties. The government is committed to the idea of free schools as engines of system-wide improvement, with new schools being established to challenge the status quo and force nearby schools to up their game. From this perspective it doesn’t matter if there is no pressing need for places: if there is demand from parents for a new school because they are not satisfied with existing provision then that is sufficient (probably the clearest articulation of this point and the philosophy of free schools generally is in Gove’s 2011 speech to Policy Exchange). Labour, by contrast, see the role of free schools (or parent-led academies) as more limited. As a mechanism for meeting well-established need or as complete replacements for underperforming schools that have closed (much like the original academies) they are welcomed. But Labour does not accept the broader role of free schools as drivers of system-wide improvement. This is reflected in their insistence that free schools should only be opened in areas of genuine need. Ultimately the difference is one of purpose and not means. Both parties accept the principle of new schools with increased freedom operating outside of local authority control, they just disagree about the conditions under which they should be established.

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