March 11, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
At last we have a proper issue on which the parties are properly split. It is an important one as well, because it is about the future of our education system. Put simply, the Conservatives want there to be more free schools, and Labour don’t. Without understanding what free schools are and how they are different from what came before, it is difficult to understand why this matters, so here is an explanation from the BBC website:
Free schools are set up by groups of parents, teachers, charities, businesses, universities, trusts, religious or voluntary groups, but funded directly by central government.They are often run by an “education provider” – an organisation or company brought in by the group setting up the school – but these firms are not allowed to make a profit.The schools are established as academies, independent of local authorities. Unlike local-authority-run schools, they are exempt from teaching the national curriculum and have increased control over teachers’ pay and conditions and the length of school terms and days.
There are quite a few dividing lines in here:
1) Conservatives believe that a free school can be set up anywhere there is a ‘need’ and that need can be related to the ‘quality’ of other schools not just the ‘quantity’. Labour believe that free schools should only have been set up where there is a lack of spaces.
2) Conservatives believe that the presence of free schools means that other schools around it will be motivated to improve. That has been the case (anecdotally) with the arrival of the West London Free School in Hammersmith. Instead of knowing that they will get pupils whatever happens, schools already there need to get better. Labour, and the unions, label this the ‘marketisation’ of education – because the language of competition has been used, they believe, too much here. Conservatives would argue that anyone arguing against a policy that improves all schools isn’t interested in improving all schools. Labour and the unions argue that existing schools should have got more money to improve.
3) Conservatives say that the groups setting up schools are not allowed to make a profit. Labour and the left and the unions argue that it is a slippery slope to them being allowed to make a profit. If the free school system is expanded, they are going to need more and more providers, and to attract them, the government may have to allow them to make a profit. That, for many (and not just those on the left) is a step too far. When people talk of “privatising” the education system – this is a key dividing point. Some of the companies running free schools are private companies. Are they really not in it for a profit?
4) Conservatives believe that local authorities provided a ‘dead hand’, in that schools had to give them money to provide whatever services they provided with local authorities having little incentive to improve. By administering them through central government (there are 400 now, and could be 1000 by 2020, the Conservatives feel that the schools can gave a ‘choice’ of support and key services, and choose ones best for them – not just those forced upon them by the local authority. Labour (who had launched academies that went on these lines too) are concerned that some vital authority services (e.g. support for special needs pupils) are just being dropped as they are too expensive for free schools. Also, central government having to administer 1000 schools is likely to be less effective than a local authority administering 20 or so. Local authorities understand local needs, central government may not. It is interesting that the Conservatives, who claim they believe in ‘localism’ (dropping control to the lowest level possible) have centralised education so much, although the Conservatives will argue that they don’t need local control since they are ‘free’ to choose how to be run best.
5) Conservatives have allowed free schools to be exempt from the national curriculum, so that they can choose to teach what they feel most benefits the children. Labour and Lib Dems argue that this risks the quality of education for the students. Government should have a role in setting what the pupils teach, and schools should not just be able to opt out when convenient.
6) Conservatives have allowed free schools to hire unqualified teachers. Labour and the Lib Dems argue that again this risks the quality of teaching of the pupils. During the qualification process teachers learn skills and ways of supporting students that cannot always just be picked up as they go along. The unions see this as a major sticking point, because they feel that teaching is a profession and the qualification is important (as they would, it justifies higher pay).
7) Conservatives have allowed free schools to have more control over teachers’ pay and conditions, and the length of school terms. This is ostensibly to be able to ‘reward’ good teachers and try and make the school do a more effective job for their pupils. The unions’ problem with this is that collective bargaining is extremely important to them and pay and conditions can become exploitative, and asking teachers, or forcing them, to work longer hours for more days in return for very little extra is unfair. Of course, a teacher could just leave a school if they didn’t like the conditions, but the unions don’t want that to happen as it is disruptive for kids.
All this has come to a head because of the release of a report by the Policy Exchange, a right-wing think tank. They obviously support free schools as their raison d’etre is to find free market solutions to policy issues. Their report suggests that the performance of other local schools in the area has been raised by the presence of state schools.
Labour and the Unions have pointed out that Policy Exchange have published the data that supports their world view and talked about the free schools that have failed, or the free schools ranked inadequate at the moment. They point to local authorities having ‘school improvement’ officers that work with schools on a day-to-day basis to help, not possible under central government rule.
The one thing I will say on this is that I suspect that should Labour get in, they may find that they like free schools a bit more than they are saying right now, and may quietly drop policies on them from any coalition demands. Yes, it is a differentiator for them, but I am not sure they really believe in it.