Rob Wilson is PPS to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and MP for Reading East
Free schools and academies should be considered as one of the defining policy achievements of this government. In contrast to the “get what you’re given” attitude in education of previous decades, free schools offer ambitious teachers and school leaders the chance to innovate and inspire, and the programme empowers parents to demand more than making-do with mediocrity.
The policy has already been a success: markedly more free schools have been rated good or outstanding under the new, tougher Ofsted framework than other state schools, but it is in the long term that we will see the real impact. As the innovation, ambition and rigour of free schools translate into better results and outcomes for pupils, more and more parents will demand the same for their own children, thereby driving a sea change in standards and ambition across the whole schools system. That is why it is so important the free schools programme isn’t crushed in its relative infancy by a potential Labour government in hoc to the unions, local authorities and the educational establishment.
Some have drawn hope from the first major announcement as Shadow Education Secretary by Tristram Hunt, whose promotion was one of the brighter spots in Ed Miliband’s depressing purge of the centrists, that Labour had finally “converted” to the cause of free schools. The Mail on Sunday described Hunt’s comments over the weekend as amounting to a “shock U-turn on free schools” by Labour. Other news outlets, ranging from the BBC, the Times, the Guardian, the Independent and even the Mirror have more or less bought Hunt’s message that Labour now supports free schools, albeit under a different name.
Hunt certainly talked a good game over the weekend. He talked fine words about Labour being “in favour of enterprise and innovation”, which are obviously at the very heart of the free schools policy. But most importantly, he promised that, if Labour win the next election, they “will keep the good free schools when we get into government”. Hunt also suggested that a potential Labour government may back new free schools (or “parent-led academies” as he would call them) in areas where there is a shortage of school places.
If this rhetoric brings comfort to the supporters of free schools and the parents of the 130,000 children due to attend those free schools either open or in the pipeline, it shouldn’t. Labour are being completely two-faced about free schools. Within a day of announcing his “conversion” to support for free schools, Tristram Hunt was denouncing them as a “dangerous ideological experiment which has been allowed to run completely out of control.”
In fact, Tristram Hunt’s position marks a step back on free schools, not a step forward. Hunt’s predecessor, Steven Twigg, had promised that Labour would not close any of the 174 free schools now open. Hunt has only promised to save the ones he deems “good”. He’s given no indication of how many free schools currently fall short of his required standards, and therefore no one can know whether Labour would keep all or the vast bulk of free schools open, or whether it would close down scores of them. Nor has he said whether he’d give different leadership the chance to turn round free schools that weren’t making the grade before handing them back to local authority control.
So Labour has gone from pledging to keep all free schools open, to promising to save some unspecified number from closure or return to local authority control. What’s worse, as The Times revealed last week, Labour has a secret plan to attack free schools by the back door. The party has confirmed that it is going to set up a review looking into ways of moving children out of free schools in buildings deemed “inappropriate” or “unsuitable”. Depending on how much extra red tape Labour end up slapping on free schools (of course, they remain silent on whether they would apply the same regulations to mainstream schools), this could end up forcing scores of free schools to close, disrupting the education of thousands of children.
If you want to know what Labour really think about free schools, judge them by their actions rather than their words. In my constituency, a successful secondary school with high standards and consistently good results, and which is hugely over-subscribed every year, is seeking to use the free schools programme to open a second site so that more parents can get their first choice school for their children. What is the response of my local Labour council and my Labour opponent? Of course, they are trying to use planning and building regulations to kill the bid.
Hunt also made clear that a Labour government would give local councils new powers to intervene in free schools where there are “concerns”, thus undermining one of the key elements of the policy. And don’t buy his pledge that Labour would support parents, social entrepreneurs and teachers in setting up new free schools. Labour will restrict the right of parents to set up new free schools only to those areas where there is a shortage of school places, regardless of whether there are enough places in good schools. If it wasn’t frankly discriminatory, Labour’s policy on new free schools would be laughably absurd: apparently, they “support enterprise and innovation” through “parent-led academies” in selected parts of the country, but not in others. Or to paraphrase Orwell: “All parents are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
I’ve written this week to Tristram Hunt setting out a list of questions about the gaping holes in Labour’s policy on free schools. He has already told me he won’t be answering it anytime soon. I can understand his difficulty, as he has cobbled together an incoherent policy. Free schools are hugely popular with parents, and Labour are doing nothing short of trying to deceive parents into feeling confident that free schools are safe in Labour’s hands. We mustn’t let them get away with it.