What would be the fate of free schools under a Labour Government?
We haven’t really had straight answers on the matter. I suspect the ones already opened would not be closed but would face creeping municipalisation. Ed Miliband has pledged to end the “alphabet soup” in education and instead make free schools and academies “accountable” to local authorities – rather than to parents. I would suspect that those due to open in September would be able to proceed but that a Labour Government would sit down with lawyers to discuss ways to scupper those due to open later.
There would be intense lobbying from the National Union of Teachers and the Local Government Association but a Labour Government would be itching to meddle anyway. Local bureaucrats would decide how many places were “needed” at existing free schools or academies to avoid being left with surplus places at unpopular schools. Whitehall bureaucrats would interfere with who could be employed as teachers and the curriculum would be imposed. There would be a big shift back to the tyranny of sameness to what Alastair Campbell calls the “bog standard comprehensive”.
As Toby Young wrote over on Coffee House the Welsh experience is not encouraging:
“If you want to know what England’s education system would be like if it hadn’t been reformed, look no further than Wales. With no academies, no free schools, no league tables – nothing that isn’t rubber-stamped by the Welsh Labour Party and the teaching unions – is it any wonder that Wales has fallen behind England in the international league tables? Parental choice in Wales is limited to deciding whether to send a child to a school where lessons are taught in English or Welsh. The Welsh education system has been afflicted by what David Reynolds, an educationalist at the University of Southampton, describes as ‘producerism’s last hurrah’. Hardly surprising, then, that 26 per cent of the Welsh population over 16 have no recognised qualifications whatsoever, according to the 2011 census.”
Locally Labour campaigned with mixed messages regarding free schools. In Swindon they are demanding new free schools open earlier than planned. But if Labour gained the two marginal seats in the town and thus formed a Government the concern is whether they would be allowed to open at all.
In Stroud the Labour candidate David Drew has attacked free schools and academies as a “disaster”.
In Barking and Dagenham the Labour councillors have been tearing themselves apart on the issue.
Then in Bradford we have Labour councillors complaining about money going to free schools. This has met with a robust response from the Conservatives:
“Conservative education spokesperson Cllr Debbie Davies said there were nine under-subscribed secondary schools across the district which parents were avoiding because they were deemed “not good enough for their children”.
“And she came to the defence of free schools, saying she recently paid a visit to Bradford’s One In a Million free school and had been impressed. She said: “The school has been open for less than two years and it received over 300 applications for just over 60 places to start this September.”
These are just examples. Labour is divided over the issue of free schools. But most Labour councillors are at best grudging in their support and at worst straightforwardly hostile.
Free schools and academies would not be safe with Ed Miliband in Downing Street.