The criticism of the Conservatives' free schools policy seems to have coalesced around three issues: the first is funding; the second the claim that only middle class parents will have the capacity to set up schools; and the third that efforts should be focused on improving existing schools. These are wrong on every count.
Of course, there will be practical difficulties in setting up free schools, finding premises, and developing a fair funding formula – but just because some things are difficult does not mean they are not worth doing.
The reality is that we now have a centralised education system that is monstrously bureaucratic and expensive. Local authorities spend huge amounts of time and resources collecting data about schools, very little of it relevant to children’s education. They are then required to interfere more and more in the running of schools when they are not equipped to do so. This is costly and ineffective. It is also diverting authorities from the tasks only they can do – admissions and special needs provision.
It is clear that even a small reduction in the endless data collection, form filling, inspection and attendant bureaucracy could free up additional funding. That is not even taking into account the costs of the central bureaucracy in the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the government’s regional offices. The resources are there, they just need directing to the right places: schools.
The left wing media, aided by the BBC, then perpetuate the patronising myth that working class parents in disadvantaged areas will not have the capacity to set up schools. The implication is that they are too apathetic or too stupid to care about their children’s education. This is the classic argument that the man in Whitehall knows best, an argument which has been proved wrong time after time.
The very same criticisms were made when councils houses were offered for sale: the left wing view was that working class people could not manage a mortgage and would not want to do so. They were wrong then and they will be wrong about free schools. The reality is that most disadvantaged parents are passionate about their children’s education and perfectly capable of playing a part in that education.
Critics are implying that free schools will require parents to take over the day-to-day running of the school. Yet the reality is that this will be the responsibility of the head teacher and staff, and the role of parents will be to get the right staff in place and then provide oversight and challenge. We know this works. Grant-maintained schools, which had similar levels of independence, were as successful in deprived areas as in middle class ones.
The final criticism is equally invalid. The argument that effort should be put into improving existing schools rather than creating free schools completely misses the point that the very act of creating free schools will drive up standards in all schools. Across the country, failing schools have been the subject of massive local authority and government intervention, from the National Challenge to the Building Schools for the Future programmes. These programmes have thrown huge amounts of money at failing schools with very limited success. The reality is that the best way to improve education, to break that cycle of continual failure, is to create free schools in sufficient numbers so that they can give parents real choice.
Local authorities, even the good ones, need to accept that they are not the best people to run schools or drive up standards. The authorities with the best schools and the highest educational standards are those which have a range of diverse schools, where parents have a real choice and where inspirational head teachers have the freedom to set their own agenda.
The creation of free schools is not a zero sum game, it will benefit all. Anyone who cares about improving education in this country should be embracing the free schools concept and helping to make it work. It is the best way to transform the educational opportunities of the most disadvantaged children in our country.