Mark Pack’s question on the future of Lib Dem education policy in light of Free Schools is very timely.
We should rightly be proud of the implementation of the pupil premium; a distinctively liberal policy that will go some way to correcting the inequities of the education system. Our education manifesto for 2015 can’t rely just on advocating a bigger and better pupil premium.
In the medium term it seems likely that free schools and academies will be here to stay; abolishing them in 2015 would entail unnecessary and counterproductive upheaval.
Plenty of the criticisms directed at free schools; lack of accountability, poor outcomes and social segregation already apply to too many British schools. For every council that works tirelessly to boost educational standards, there is one that could do far better. You only need to look at Bradford’s school system to see segregation in action.
Academies and free schools present opportunities for improving accountability to parents, for introducing innovation in teaching methods and tackling some of the inequities of the current system. Local communities need to work hard to make these opportunities a reality.
There are also clear risks, which we can explicitly prevent while in Government and campaign against in 2015. One is the introduction of profit making schools; advocated by several right-wing think tanks but ruled out by Nick Clegg. Another is the scope in the future for reducing education spending overall without public scrutiny.
The biggest problem, and one our 2015 manifesto can tackle if Lib Dems in Government have not provided a solution by then, is the centralisation the free school/academy regime entails. This has consequences for localism, for the accountability of schools and causes a practical administrative problem of under-capacity at the Department of Education.
With headteachers having far more autonomy over just about every aspect of school activity, making sure they are properly accountable should be our priority. It does not seem feasible that every complaint that can’t be resolved locally could be mediated through Whitehall. What recourse should be available to local people when a school starts teaching creationism as scientific fact, or sacks the special needs teaching assistants to pay for iPads for teachers?
Firstly, we need to make governing boards more robust, pro-active and willing to cast a constructively critical eye over everything schools do. Complementing this would be an ombudsman incorporating scrutiny that was formerly invested in local authorities but combined with elements of Ofsted and the local government ombudsman so that issues can be tackled in the round. There needs to be a realisation that performance league tables obscure more than they reveal and that letting universities and businesses have more of a role in critiquing performance is no bad thing. A distinctly liberal policy towards devolution of power to schools and parents should go hand-in-hand with a wholesale revolution of the way we judge the process and outcomes of schooling.
We must also be mindful that school choice not only relies on a high level of parent knowledge but is a very urbancentric policy. Even if the introduction of Free Schools eventually improves parent engagement, we will need to find a way of extending the potential benefits to rural areas where geography and demography preclude a ‘market’ of schools emerging.
As it stands, free schools still have the potential to benefit some children at the expense of others. This has been the danger and reality of lots of past incarnations of the system though. The important thing is to focus not on structure, but on culture and technique, recognising that educational success relies on good parenting as well as good schooling.
* Tom Smith is Director of Liberal Insight, the new liberal think tank.