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Why doesn’t Labour just say no to free schools?

say no to free schoolsCameron announces that, in addition to the 240 so-called free schools already operating in 2014-15, a re-elected Tory government will open a further 153. Why is the Labour party so timid in responding to this? The official riposte was:

Instead of focusing on the need for more primary school places, David Cameron’s government has spent £241m on free schools in areas that already have enough school places. The result is a 200% increase in the number of infants taught in classes of more than 30″.

The impression given is that what is wrong with free schools is merely that they’re being set up in the wrong places: if they were set up in places where there’s a shortage of primary school places, that would be fine. Except it wouldn’t be fine at all. Why doesn’t Labour make the real charge against free schools?

Just about everything is wrong with free schools. As is already happening big time with the NHS, they represent the worst form of privatisation since they are funded by the State, yet the State (i.e. taxpayers) exercises no public control over either their policies or performance. They are often set up by some highly eccentric characters who have little knowledge or interest in education, but have their own pet obsession played out in the school curriculum, even perhaps anticipating that if the Tories win again they will make a tidy profit if for-profit schools are introduced. Already a free school gets more funding and support from the government than a State school does. Moreover, staff at free schools are not even obliged to have any teaching qualifications. And the local population have no power to call free schools to account whatever their policies or antics.

Why doesn’t Labour say all this as the reason why it will end this disastrous Govean policy which is ultimately aimed at the total privatisation of the UK education system? Labour is accepting the case for integrating health and social care under local authority control in the Manchester city region proposal, so why doesn’t it champion returning education to local authority control where the case is much stronger because it would ensure balanced and supported development for all schools in the area, not privileged positioning for one renegade? Why does Labour appear to be running scared of local authorities and opting instead for quangos at regional or sub-regional levels? And why is Labour merely threatening to remove State subsidies from public schools if the fail to ‘co-operate’ rather than setting out a programme to integrate them in the public sector as happens in all the countries most successful in education like Finland and Korea?


  1. James Martin says:

    Good points Michael. But don’t just focus of Free Schools, bad as they are, when they are just the technical name for starter (rather than existing school ‘converter’) Academies and are covered by the same regulations in the 2010 Academies Act. Both Free Schools and Academies are at heart about removing local democratic oversight and control and in increasing outsourcing.

    Because remember schools are workplaces not just for Heads and teachers, but for a large variety of support staff, and what you increasingly find in academies over time (and free schools from the start) is that these colleagues are paid far less than their peers in maintained schools covered by local authority ‘Green Book’ terms, have worse conditions of service, and are more often contracted out to private profit making companies even when someone like Nicky Morgan says she is against profit making schools – the reality is that there are lots of companies now selling their services to academies, from staffing to HR, who are making huge amounts of money out of these supposedly ‘not for profit’ establishments.

    The real scandal here is that Labour opened the door to all this in the last government by introducing the academy model, and those responsible need to be held accountable, not least because the stats show (thanks to some very diligent work by people like Henry Stewart) that academies not only do not increase performance, but actually slow it down compared to their maintained school peers.

    Add that to the scandal of private school Tristrum ‘scab’ Hunt with his private schooled shadow team seemingly having no understanding of any of the real issues here and we are all in trouble. Hunt has said he opposes free schools but then immediately states he wants to support ‘parent led academies’. Spot the difference, because I can’t.

  2. David Pavett says:

    Michael’s sense of alarm about the latest announcement on free schools is, in my view, fully justified.

    However, there is a very simple answer to the question he poses. Labour cannot mount an effective campaign against free schools because it supports them. If one took Labour statements at face value it might seem otherwise. Labour says that it will end the free schools programme (while committing to support those already created). This is nothing but a verbal sleight of hand since Labour at the same time wants to promote “parent-led academies”. A parent-led academy is exactly what a free school is.

    Tristram Hunt made clear in his talk to the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange at the Labour Conference fringe that parent-led academies are his preferred option for achieving the “innovative” leadership that he wants to see.

    As in so many other things Labour policy is a moderated version of Tory policy. Labour would reign in some of the free school excesses: no more go-aheads where no new places are needed; all schools to be funded on the same formula, academies (including free schools) could have their status changed by a government approved, unelected, Director of School Standards if they are deemed to be failing.

    Despite these qualifications the essential idea of the free school (aka parent-led academy) remains intact and I think that the answer to Jon’s question is not difficult to work out.

    P.S. We are talking of a Party that cannot even bring itself to commit to ending selection at 11 in those parts of the country where it still operates so the stance on free schools (with all their techniques for covert selection) can be said to be consistent with other areas of educational policy.

  3. Jon Lansman says:

    To David & James: apologies – I inadvertently failed to properly credit Michael for this piece when it was first posterd (though I correctly tweeted it as his work). I have now corrected that and amended your comments to direct them to him. Apologies to all. Jon (Ed)

  4. John.P reid says:

    Because we haven’t made the cause to the public, that there rubbish, and we want to appeal to enough people to do better than we did years ago?

  5. Barry Ewart says:

    Perhaps Labour is scared of ‘parent power’ (a significant number of parents only have a temporary interest in schools whilst their children are there) but everyone in the community through taxes pays for them (and academies) but we have no say! An excellent previous comment on free schools being about cheapening labour in schools. We need to bring education back under the democratic control of local authorities – we also need democratic schools – we could have governers elected by the whole community in the catchment areas. But I have been thinking about education a lot lately and sadly some people may go through their whole lives thinking that they are thick because exam results tell them so (elaborate memory tests often depending on how you feel on the day- it could be argued some students are trained to pass exams and some middle class parents buy extra tuition but do they really think critically? So some people may go their whole lives thinking their ideas are worthless. Education under the Tories is not about encouraging everyone to reach their full potential it is to sort the so called Wheat from the Chaff and build (like public schools, grammar schools) a loyal layer of unquestioning managers for capitalism. We need an education system that nurtures the critical citizens of tomorrow. I went to a wonderful event in Wakefield on Saturday, ‘Banners Held High’ celebrating the 30th anniversary of the end of the miners strike and I wanted to tell the 600 plus audience of working class people that each of you is importantt and any one of you may have an idea to solve climate change, to build equality, on housing, the economy etc. etc. We need democratic and accountable education systems all over the World to build a World of critical thinkers! We will then free working humanity. Yours in solidarity!

  6. Sandra Crawford says:

    One realistic way that Labour could reign in these schools and perhaps hand them back to Local Authorities would be to make sure that the law protects standards and teachers pay.

    Any attempt to profiteer or rent seek would be eliminated if these expensive public standards were mandatory, and any new free school providers would be tempted to give them up as losers.

    1. Sandra Crawford says:

      However – Labour would need to oppose TTIP and make sure this country is never signed up. They could be sued for imposing expensive legislation on rent seeking or profiteeting companies that run schools.
      They keep on about the NHS – BUT THEY HAVEN’T GIVEN PRIVATISED SCHOOLS A SINGLE THOUGHT, or any other damaging effects of TTIP.

  7. Gary Brooke says:

    Education is the ‘poor relation’ of health when it comes to considering its importance in relation to the election. There are many reasons for this which I will not go into here. However, both education and health are of equal importance if you consider the how privatisation affects them and the what consequences are for all of us. Both are being handed over to unelected private bodies, often run by Tory donors; both seek to ignore the democratic wishes of local people; both are/will see a ‘race to the bottom’ in wages and conditions; both will/are see tax payers’ money find its way into untraceable offshore accounts; both will be cash cows for an unproductive corporate and financial class; both are seeing worsening of outcomes; both are/will see noticeable increases in payments to spivvy lawyers and consultancies; both are likely to see a qualitative and quantative reduction in the services or courses they offer; both are seeing more made up managerial posts being created; both won’t offer ‘choice’ to a ‘consumer’, only the provider (academies can select pupils). In short, democracy dies as corporations and banks effectively run the state and Tories, banks and corporations milk the taxpayer in order to safeguard their position at the top of the heap. As far as education is concerned, none of the coalitions ‘reforms’ (mainly nicked from NuLab) are about standards etc. This is about power. Hence, the importance of education. It should be mentioned by Labour in the same breath as health. One has to ask why this ain’t so.

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