C. Northcote Parkinson once described, in a masterly essay, how a committee agreed in a matter of minutes a contract for a nuclear reactor, and then fell to arguing about the cost of a new bicycle shed.
Almost as ludicrous is the manner in which this Government’s reforms to English education are discussed. In May 2010, when it came into office, there were 203 academies: state-funded schools independent of local authority control, and instead answerable to charitable trusts.
There are now 4,098 academies, including 55 per cent of state-funded secondaries and 12 per cent of state-funded primaries. This twenty-fold increase is so vast that like the nuclear reactor, it baffles the imagination.
So within the total of 4,098 academies, attention tends to be focussed on the 174 free schools which have so far been set up: new schools authorised under the Academies Act 2010 and enjoying the same freedom to run their own affairs.
But even 174 is quite a large number to grasp, so in practice it has proved easier to concentrate on just three free schools, in Crawley, Derby and Bradford, where there have been problems.
Even those of us who are not statisticians can see it would be dangerous to try to determine from a sample of only three schools what is happening to the whole programme. Yet the bad publicity attaching to those three has helped to foment the impression that the whole free schools programme could be in trouble.
The truth is the opposite. These schools are extremely popular: they have an average of 2.7 applicants for every place. Ofsted has rated 67 per cent of these schools as good or outstanding, compared to 64 per cent of all schools.
Common sense suggests that not every new foundation will be a runaway success. As in any walk of life, there will be failures. To refuse to admit this would be absurd: it would imply the existence of a world so perfect, or at least so perfectible, that nothing ever goes wrong. In even the best schools, things are always going wrong: a pupil commits some atrocity, or a teacher goes mad, or a parent behaves in a ridiculous way. To lead with success a new school, or indeed any school, is an enormously difficult venture, which depends on getting many different things right. Few indeed are the head teachers who are equally good at dealing with pupils, members of staff, parents, governors, the curriculum, the ethos, the finances and any number of other subjects. In the case of free schools, finding suitable buildings is often one of the greatest early difficulties.
When Michael Gove arrived as Education Secretary in 2010, he was told by his officials that it would be impossible to open the first free schools in September 2011. This turned out to be wrong: 24 opened at that time. The preparatory work done by the Tories while still in opposition, including the secret drafting of the Academies Act, helped enable this. Gove knew what he was trying to do, and so did the various groups who had set their hearts and minds on opening free schools. The official view used to be that opening a new school took between three and five years. It now takes 18 months from idea to opening. The whole process has become simpler and cheaper.
But there are still only 174 free schools, with perhaps another hundred due to be announced soon. In numerical terms, the existing state schools which have liberated themselves from local authority control by becoming academies are far more significant.
Here is a testimonial to this kind of school:
“The first academies had been massively oversubscribed. It was plain this was not solely because of the new buildings. It was precisely because the academy school seemed to belong not to some remote bureaucracy, not to the rulers of government, local or national, but to itself, for itself. The school would be in charge of its own destiny. This immediately gave it pride and purpose. Because the sponsors were determined and successful individuals, they brought that determination and drive for success into the school. And most of all, freed from the extraordinarily debilitating and often, in the worst sense, politically correct interference from state or municipality, the academies just had one thing in mind, something shaped not by political prejudice but by common sense: what will make the school excellent.”
That is Tony Blair in his memoir about being Prime Minister, A Journey. He relates how in the summer of 2000, he and Andrew Adonis formulated the academy idea for schools, based in part on earlier Tory policy. And he also relates how most of the Labour Party opposed it.
For academies present a mortal threat to anyone who supports the traditonal way of running comprehensive schools, under which local authorities for decades presided over large numbers of poor or mediocre schools on the basis that this was somehow egalitarian, and the best that could be done. The great danger of academies is that they demonstrate how much better it is possible to do, when committed groups of teachers, parents and others are given the chance.
The Labour Party still, for the most part, detests the idea of stripping local authorities of the power to run schools. It believes, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, that the state knows best how to ensure educational equality. And Labour wishes to appeal to the widespread and understandable suspicion which is felt of new ways of doing things.
On the other hand, it would be a bold Labour MP who denounced a new free school being set up in his or her constituency. On the whole, they see how impossible it is to be seen trying to quash such admirable local initiatives. People who know about a particular free school tend to think well of it, to see the local needs which it is striving to meet, and to wish it every success. When one considers what a market there is, in the media, for stories about free schools which have run into difficulties, it is extraordinary how few such stories have emerged.
So Labour’s education spokesman, Tristram Hunt, finds himself obliged to face both ways on the question of free schools. On Monday of last week, in the Commons, Gove provided a useful summary of Hunt’s positions:
“In May 2010, he said that free schools were a ‘vanity project for yummy mummies’. In May 2013, he reversed his position, saying that he wanted to put ‘rocket boosters’ under the programme. In October 2013, he reversed again, saying that free schools were a ‘dangerous ideological experiment’. Later the same month, he said, ‘If you are a parent interested in setting up a free school, we will be on your side.’ He has had more contorted positions on free schools than some Indian sex manuals that I could name.”
Hunt was on this occasion trying, and failing, to make something of accusations emanating from the Liberal Democrats that free schools were being subsidised out of money removed from the targeted basic need programme, which helps local authorities to provide new school places in areas of high population growth.
So like Labour, the Lib Dems consider it worth their while to pursue the votes of people who are opposed to free schools, and indeed to academies in general. In December, John Rentoul wrote in his blog that the Lib Dems’ opinion research
“found that the most effective way to win back public sector workers – presumably mostly from Labour – is to attack Michael Gove by name. So far, Clegg has been too coalition-minded to go for direct confrontation with a fellow Cabinet minister. I wonder how long such restraint will last.”
The answer was that the restraint lasted until Clegg found himself facing defeat in tomorrow’s European and local elections. He then decided the time had come to pick a fight on the emotive question of free schools.
This leaves the Conservatives as the party of freedom and aspiration, which actually believes in the right of people to set up new state-funded schools. Labour and the Lib Dems are left fighting each other for the admittedly still quite large number of votes belonging to people who feel threatened by educational reform. They scrape around for evidence that academies are not working. They attack free schools on the tangential ground that these are not always founded in the areas of greatest need. They deny or at least try to ignore the invigorating effects of self-reliance combined with competition. They repudiate what Blair and Adonis tried to teach them, place Hunt in an impossible position, and make one wonder what the opposite of the verb “to modernise” might be. They will only succeed if they manage to persuade the wider public, in defiance of an ever increasing volume of evidence, that when it comes to running state schools, the old ways established in the 1960s and 1970s are best.