David Laws: Free schools should focus on education, not profit

David Laws is interviewed in the current issue of Attain, a magazine focussed on the independent schools’ sector, where he has the following to say on the issue of whether free schools should be permitted to make profits:

I think it is important that the people who come in and deliver the education should be seen to be doing so for reasons relating to education and delivering an improved quality of education. And I think that the public would be far more suspicious of the free school development if they felt it was about people coming in to make profit out of state education. I think there would be the risk of a political backlash… So I think that we have got to demonstrate and prove that this is not about some sort of agenda of allowing people to make a profit for its own sake. It is driven by the need to improve the education system to allow a wider range of education modes to be tried out in the UK.

However, Laws doesn’t rule out profit-making being allowed in the future:

I think that we would be unwise to rule out the possibility of it ever happening, but I don’t think it should happen over the next few years. I think that we need to embed the existing new programme of Free Schools and demonstrate that it is about education performance and not about allowing people to ‘exploit’ the education system. And I think that we would have to show that we have got adequate controls in place to make sure that public money was not filtered of.

In the interview, Laws also rebuffs the suggestion by Michael Gove, the education secretary, that private schools should be more active in establishing new free schools:

I think that the primary responsibility for the governing bodies and headteachers in the independent sector is to deliver what they are being paid for by the parents  – which is to deliver a good education to their children. Their job is not to deliver state education.

The full interview can be found in the current (Spring) issue of Attain magazine, which is available via the Attain website after a quick (and free) registration process.

* Nick Thornsby is Thursday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs here.

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  • david thorpe 11th Jan '12 - 3:21pm

    we should follow the advice of the great Liberal, JM Keynes, who said:

    “The state should provide only those things which the private sector cannot provide”.

    Universal schooling up tp the age of 18 is one of those things.

  • Richard Shaw 11th Jan '12 - 6:22pm

    @David Thorpe

    Did Keynes ever specify if “Universal schooling up tp the age of 18″ was one of “those things” he was referring to?

    Suppose we had schools run by the state, private companies, community enterprises, etc. and they received all their funding from central taxation based on the number of pupils, with the same amount per pupil (maybe different amounts depending on the pupils’ respective school year). No admission fees. Assume they had to meet all the same tight regulatory standards with regards to food, environment and quality of teaching to prevent sacrificing quality for profit, and that they have a board of governors elected by and from the people in the catchment zone.

    Supposing the above, what does it matter who the provider is as long as they are all adhere to the same minimum standards?

    My main problem with Academies and Free Schools are that they don’t have to adhere to the same standards as state schools (offal burgers anyone?) and that they are unaccountable to local people, unlike state schools (who are accountable via the LEA).

  • Free schools can surely be quite accountable to the parents of the children at the school?

    To be honest, I think working for the education of children vs. making money is a false dichotomy, and it’s not necessarily a productive way to look at education. You can do both. Does removing all profit motive improve standards? That’s all I’m really concerned about.

  • Is being accountable to the parents of pupils at the school the same as being accountable? What about future pupils and parents? What about the community?


  • Surely, the Government’s responsibility in education is to get the optimum overall results out of its investments. The last years have demonstrated that spending considerable amounts of money playing around with the governance of schools and pandering to the electorate with the myth of “parental choice”, has done nothing to improve outcomes.

    What would improve standards is to spend that money on improved training for teachers, solid internal structures, sensible evaluation and improved leadership. Given that so many academies have failed, that the Swedish “free” schools have created huge problems, that the US “charter” schools are in many case worse than the locally accountable schools, it is time we stopped wasting money on the vanity projects of successive governments.

  • Richard Swales 12th Jan '12 - 11:53pm

    I run an after-school/after-work English-language school for profit. We provide a better service than the state-subsidised competition.

    In other fields of human activity it is not assumed that the profit motive must destroy quality – we don’t assume that a car from a state-owned or state-supported car factory must be better than one made by a company paying out fat dividends and bonuses.

    I tend to think though that if Laws isn’t proposing it now he doesn’t need to waste political capital arguing for it now.

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