Should free schools only be allowed where there is such a shortage of school places that the existing schools, however bad, have nothing to fear?
A pretty typical comment on Newsnight from Gerald Meehan, the Strategic Director for Children and Young People on Halton Borough Council, made the case as follows:
What I'm interested in is the impact on the other schools. Clearly we would want every school in Halton to be a success. But we also have responsibility for the pupils who are attending our schools today that the future of their education isn't threatened by their school not being viable or by a large number of surplus places or money being removed from their budget that otherwise would have gone to them.
Imagine if Mr Meehan switched to the Council's planning department and said:
What I'm interested in is the impact on the other restaurants. Clearly we would want every restaurant in Halton
to be a success. But we also have responsibility for the diners who are
attending our restaurants today that the future of their meals isn't
threatened by their restaurant not being viable or by a large number of
surplus places or money being removed from their budget that otherwise
would have gone to them.
Surely the response would be that if a new restaurant is proposed, with the prospect that more people might choose to go to it, and the viability of other restaurants threatened, then so be it. Why should bad restaurants be protected? Why should bad schools? Is children's education less important?
I don't know how Mr Meehan votes, but he is clearly putting forward a socialist case even if he would shrink from applying his logic to restaurants.
But what is Cllr David Simmonds up to?
He is the Conservative Deputy Leader of Hillingdon Council, but he would like people like Mr Meehan to be able to veto free schools. Notionally this could be on planning grounds but it still means councils having the power to thwart choice. The point is whether a council should be able to veto new free schools opening on the grounds that it already has "surplus places" at its bad and unwanted schools that are already struggling for viability. Cllr Simmonds as "Chair of the Children and Young People Board" is serving as spokesman for the left wing stance of the Local Government Association (not for the first time.)
The LGA (and London Councils) line is that free schools should only open in areas of "need" (defined as inadequate provision and not including demand created by parents dissatisfied with the quality on offer) and not compete with Local Authority schools unless LA schools are resourced enough to reach good standards. As no Labour council would ever agree that its schools have enough money, this means never.
Anyway, competition from free schools is integral to improving LA schools – throwing endless cash at them does not work. Reducing the role of free schools to plugging gaps in provision was not the intention of Parliament. Basic need funding is provided separately.
Naturally I don't expect Mr Meehan to accept this. But isn't it odd that Cllr Simmonds doesn't?