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Who’s in charge in Twigg’s vision for free schools?

School studentsInterviewed by Jeremy Vine last Sunday, Stephen Twigg repeated the proposal made in his recent RSA speech that Labour will support “parent-led academies”. He said that these will not be free schools because: (1) they will not be allowed to use unqualified staff; (2) not all free schools are parent-led; (3) they will be overseen by the local authority.

Lord Adonis, Michael Gove and free-school activist Toby Young have all hailed Twigg’s parent-led academies as free schools under another name. A free school, they say, is nothing but a start-up academy, some of which are parent-led (like Toby Young’s West London Free School). That is surely exactly what Twigg is proposing. This triumverate has accordingly declared victory in the battle over free schools. Who is right?

We need to be clear: there no legal entity called a free school. A free school is simply a start-up academy, as opposed to a converter academy. The legal expert David Wolfe is very clear about this on his blog:

It was never key to the argument for or against free schools that they would be able to use unqualified staff – point (1) above. Giving them that power was just another twist of the screw breaking down the public regulation of state-funded schools. It is right that Labour opposes the use of unqualified staff but this is not of the essence when it comes to free schools. It is a distraction from the main arguments.

Point (2) above is irrelevant since not even Stephen Twigg is limiting his start up academies to parents but wants them to be set up by teachers as well.

This leaves only point (3) as a potentially substantial argument. Stephen Twigg says that he wants local authorities to have oversight of all the schools in their area. This sounds like a response to the pressure to demands for greater local democracy and accountability and has been interpreted by some as being just that. However, the general thrust of his proposals, their inconsistencies and their lack of detail provide grounds for doubting this optimistic view.

That “parent-led academies” instead of “free schools” may not represent a significant change was already suggested by Twigg’s RSA speech in which the schools that he singled out as examples of good “parent-led schools” (School 21 and Woodpecker Primary School) are both free schools.

Then there is the new “freedoms” for all state-funded schools. Steven Twigg proposed that all schools should have the freedoms of academies to set their own curricula and to determine what length of school day and school-year. He didn’t explain how this would facilitate the cooperation between schools that he advocates. Neither did he offer an educational justification for the idea. His appeal to the warm sounding word “freedom” is another distraction. There are different freedoms and they are not all mutually constistent. There are freedoms derived from collective social action and freedoms derived from competition between competing individuals. The second is the traditional laissez-faire assumption that out of many competing individual units a great good will arise. It is in this second sense that Stephen Twigg uses the word.

Within days Michael Gove had snapped up the proposal for greater freedoms and announced that all schools would be able to fix the length of the school days and school years! If Labour bases its ideas on neo-liberal ideology then it must not be surprised to see them adopted by the Tories. This was a perfect case in point.

Inconsistency. The proposed school free-for-all is is not at all what it seems to be. Some Academy chains now have more schools at their disposal than was previously the case for some local education authorities. Stephen Twigg wants each local authority school to decide its own length of school day and year. Is he proposing the same for individual schools in academy chains? He is not. He has raised no challenge to the power of the chains beyond a vague suggestion that their schools would be open to local authority oversight.

And what of that oversight? Many local authorities have lost too many staff, as a result of losing responsibility for schools that having become academies and because of the cuts, to be in a position to carry out the task of the oversight of the schools in their area. Besides, we have been given no detail at all as to what this oversight would be for beyond a vague mention of “standards”.

Would Labour undertake to fund local authorities to take on the staff required for a meaningful oversight of schools? How would they relate to Academy chains some of which extend over many different local authorities? Without answers to such questions it looks as though Labour will leave the Gove revolution essentially untouched and will even further it with a neo-liberal “freedom” agenda thereby taking us another step closer to schools for profit.

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