The Politics Show yesterday included a slot highlighting Tory councillors' criticisms of the Conservatives' decision to embrace the Swedish model of Free Schools – the hope to see a new wave of state financed but independently-owned and run schools to drive up standards, by providing more choice. The BBC said it was hard to get critics to come forward so close to the election. I suspect another problem could have been that the vast majority of Conservative councillors support the policy.
But there are some inevitable frictions. The programme highlighted Clare Middle School which Conservative-run Suffolk County Council wants to close. But which a group of parents want to keep going using the new policy a Conservative Government would bring them.
We didn't hear from Cllr Les Lawrence from Birmingham although he has spoken out previously. But Cllr Paul Carter, the Leader of Kent County Council, told the Politics Show:
"I've enormous reservations, I'd like to talk about some of the consequences of freeing up too far … at the end of the day, we have a duty to educate all children and if schools are going off randomly, setting out different standards, different rules and regulations, it's very difficult to have a coherent education system in a town, in a county the size and scale of Kent."
Cllr David Kirk, Lead Cabinet Member for Education on Hampshire County Council, also appeared. He talked about the cost of surplus places:
"It is difficult to understand at the moment, where, in a time of constraint, financial constraint, when we are very worried actually about what our budget levels will be in future in the immediate future, how one could manage to effectively subsidise a number of surplus places throughout the area in order to provide this greater choice. Choice is something we would all dearly love to be able to offer – but choice costs."
Cllr Carter's comments are particularly alarming as they sound like an attack on the concept of choice itself and a ringing defence of standardised, one size fits all, state provision. It certainly sounds like a robust argument for outlawing fee paying schools. So far as Cllr Kirk point about surplus places this is a variant of he old socialist objection to choice: "But what will happen to all the bad schools?" If an unpopular state school ends up half empty because it can't cope with the new competition the answer is to the surplus places problem is to close the bad school – now prevent the competition.
Closer to the mark were Conservative MP Tim Yeo and from Policy Exchange's Anna Fazackerley who warned that companies starting up the new schools are not being allowed to make a profit. In Sweden they are. If we want the policy to work effectively they need that freedom here as well.