Party members could be forgiven for being confused about the party’s policy on free schools. Andy Burnham, Shadow Education Minister until this month, called them a “reckless gamble”, attacking a “free-for all, where good schools can be destabilised and where teachers can be employed without teaching qualifications”. Last week, Stephen Twigg, newly appointed as his replacement, said in an interview with the Liverpool Daily Post “he would back the setting-up of ‘free schools’, by parents, teachers or non-profit groups, if they helped poorer children and the wider community.” Showing some chutzpah, he neverthless claimed:
he was not dramatically shifting the party’s position, adding: “Andy never said he had an absolute policy of opposing free schools either.”
This change of policy (whatever Twigg might have claimned) was widely condemned by Labour members including by Owen Jones at Labour List. Over the weekend, there were clearly some difficult phone calls between the Leader’s camp and Mr Twigg. Then a definitive policy emerged — rather better from the point of view of the vast majority of Labour members. It was circulated in a parliamentary party briefing, allegedly “From the Office of Stephen Twigg MP“:
Labour’s position on Free Schools
1. We have shown in government that we welcome innovation and greater involvement from outside organisations in schools. The free schools policy is not the best way to achieve this, but of course we remain supportive of those organisations who want to be more involved in our education system and bring innovation to it just as we were with academies and trust schools.
2. We’re worried that the government’s free school policy is a distraction from the vital task of improving the vast majority of schools and as people know we have major concerns about parts of this policy, including:
- The schools are being funded by money taken from other schools
- There is no account of how the schools will be joined up with other local schools and services. We don’t want a free-for-all undermining other schools
- There are clearly concerns that schools might be able to open without meeting basic minimum standards like having a play ground
That’s why we don’t support the Government’s free schools policy and why we have always been clear that this is not the way that we would have gone about things if we were in government now.
3. We say that where schools that are established under the current government are successful, delivering for their pupils and communities, it is right that they continue. Labour wants to see good schools that extend opportunities, particularly in deprived areas, drive up standards in their localities, and close the attainment gap between children from rich and poor backgrounds. That is the basis on which we will assess the Government’s Free Schools policy and determine where changes are needed.
Note the last paragraph. What does it mean? When Labour returns to office, clearly non-one would suggest closing a “successful” school. But what of its future status. Room for further discussion and clarification, you may well feel.