One of the ways the Labour Party avoid saying whether they support or oppose free schools is to say they are a "distraction." As the Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg says, there are only 24 free schools, out of 24,000 schools in the country. But in September this year there will be 50 more. And it was announced today that a further 102 have been approved for next year.
Another 200 in 2014? A few hundred more for 2015? To say we shouldn't be "distracted" by the fate of 500 or 1,000 schools becomes a less plausible message. Will Mr Twigg say he doesn't have a view on the 300 worst primary schools being taken over as sponsored academies as that would be a "distraction"?
The truth is that the schools revolution is becoming a reality.
However, there will be frustration that the number of free schools isn't increasing faster. The trouble is that they are rationed, as each one needs millions from the Government to buy its premises. If they were allowed to lease or rent their buildings it would be possible to afford far more. Also if they were allowed to make a profit and buy their own buildings. There should be state inspection – as there is for independent schools – but if free schools could operate without heavy start-up costs, they should be funded according to the number of pupils they attract.
While just over 100 schools have been approved for next year there were 250 applicants. Yet typically the 150 who were rejected would have been able to offer parents a better and wider choice than they have now. Tim Knox gave a striking example yesterday of the proposed Phoenix Free School which wants to open in Oldham with teachers who have served in the armed forces. The teaching unions were horrified, but local parents keen to register their children. Not surprising given that the abysmal standards offered by the local schools at present mean the children are more likely to end up rioting than going to university.
The suggestion that the opposition of the local council was a factor in turning down the new school for next year is especially disturbing. As a general rule, the more vociferous a council is in its opposition, the worse the existing choice, and the greater the need for free schools to open.
I would suggest that the Phoenix Free School encourage the hundreds of parents who have registered to lobby their local MPs. What does the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, Debbie Abrahams think about it? Her website Constituents First doesn't say. But if she wants to put her constituents first then she should lobby Michael Gove about getting the Phoenix open for the benefit of the large number of her constituents who wish to send their children to it.
"Who wants free schools?" asks Michael Meacher, the Labour MP for Oldham West aand Royton. His constituents should tell him.
Local MPs for the 150 free school proposals which have not so far been approved should be challenged to lobby for them, or face the electoral consequences of not doing so.