The Labour Party and the teaching unions are soft on "surplus places" when it is a matter of closing or taking over an unpopular, failing school. However, when it comes to thwarting new schools from opening they suddenly become most concerned about the misallocation of resources. The problem with the Shadow Education Secretary, Stephen Twigg's, new policy on free schools is not that under his regime new free schools would have a different name "parent-led academies" or "teacher-led academies." The real problem is that, if places are available at existing bad schools, then under Labour, new free schools would not be allowed.
Lord Adonis says:
Labour will rightly locate new academies in areas – and there are plenty of them – where there is a shortage of good quality school places.
That wouldn't be so bad – although it would be the Labour Government rather than local parents who decide what constitutes "good quality" places. Good exam results? Good Ofsted? What we have seen with many free schools is that they are offering something distinctive.
In any event we shouldn't waste time debating how many angels can dance on that particular pin. Lord Adonis was, I'm afraid, talking nonsense. If we read Mr Twigg's speech we see that he declares that for a free school to open where there are any existing surplus places at any existing schools in a local authority, then that is a "scandal." There is no proviso about discounting bad schools from the equation.
Mark Lehain, founder of a free school in Bedford, has written a powerful blog, challenging the incoherence of Labour's new policy:
How does one actually define where new schools are needed most?
Basic need for school places? Not good enough. Surplus places may exist because parents may feel that they are not appropriate or of sufficient quality for their children. This was certainly a key driver behind the support for Bedford Free School.
And if we place a "basic need" requirement for new schools then existing schools fearing a new rival could easily collude to create "spare" places by raising their PANs (Published Admissions Numbers), and so keep alternative and innovative providers out of their area. Don't believe me? It would happen.
So do we only open schools where Local Authorities want them? This is an even worse idea. If LAs have a say in whether or not parent Academies went ahead, as has been briefed elsewhere, then we are back to the days of managed-supply, when councils controlled the provision of school places.
We had that until 2010 and this led to a class-divided school system, with the poorest stuck in failing schools propped up by councils, and a shortage of places across the country.
I have always argued that, aside from their freedom to innovate, the most important aspect of the free school policy is that even where they don't yet exist, they could… and that this alone could be enough to keep existing schools on their toes and be even more attentive to the needs of the children they serve.
After all, if they don't keep their communities happy, then they will find a new school opening up on their doorstep. (In our case, quite literally: our school is on the doorstep of the Council's HQ.)