Opinion: Free schools good, free schools bad?

Liberal Democrats don’t like free schools do they? After all they undermine local authorities and are bad for the democratic accountability of our state school system. They introduce demand as opposed to need for the creation of new schools. Certainly there is some truth in these objections, but the reality is not black and white.

In my ward in LB Camden the Labour administration has refused to take action to meet the shortage of primary school places. They have fudged the issue with figures that show that they are adhering to statutory requirements. I was elected in 2009 and every year children and parents have been failed by the system. So with my support those parents applied to set up a free school and they have now been given the green light. This was the only solution to a very real problem and it should mean that from 2013 the children in my ward will be able to go to a local school. From this experience I have come to think that free schools can provide a pragmatic solution that is acceptable to the Lib Dem ethos, albeit in limited local circumstances. Have a look at the Belsize school website and see what you think!

However, I would go a step further. Where there is a shortage of places, a free school set up by local campaigners with the interests of the wider community at heart can be a good thing. After all, this fits our cherished idea of greater localism, which must mean more than transferring power from central to local government. Like most Lib Dems I would like to see stronger local government, but where the capacity exists some things can be devolved further, within the right framework. In other words, empowering local communities to take responsibility for their own issues is in principle a good thing. I think the framework provided by the current free school legislation is indeed flawed, but there is a clear and powerful element within it that would be worth salvaging.

Tom Simon is a Councillor for Belsize Ward in LB Camden and the deputy leader of the Lib Dem group there. He holds the shadow portfolio for Children, Schools and Families. The big issues in his ward have to date included primary school places, saving the local library, opening a new post office and HS2.

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12 Comments

  • I need a new school where I live – but as a working parent am I the right person to build, setup and run a secondary school? Why is it so hard to get our government, national or local to provide the basic infrastructure that is needed over the long term? I can’t tell if my job will still be in the same place in 2 years. There may be a number of people with the skills and contacts to set up schools outside the system, but its rather hit and miss to rely on such people being where they are needed and having the time to do this. That is why I am generally against free schools, even if – in a few years, I might have to go down the route of teaming up with other parents to set up a school. What else does the State do that we could do in this way? Free armies perhaps. Free police forces? This Tory idea is taking us backwards a few hundred years.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Jul '12 - 10:51am

    The main argument against “Free Schools” so far as I am concerned is that they are set up to solve a problem that does not exist. The arguments for them seem to be based on the idea that the local authority dictates what is taught in schools and how. But this is just not true! What is taught in LEA schools and how is decided by their heads and governing bodies, not by the council. Everything I have seen about various “Free schools” teaching different sorts of subjects on different ways could just have easily been done in LEA schools. There is nothing stopping any LEA school introducing Latin, or fancy uniforms or any other things which have been held up as showing what good things “Free Schools” are. There is no shortage of places for people willing to take on the increasingly onerous role of governor of an LEA school, so anyone who wants to influence what happens in a local school can easily do so by volunteering to be a governor.

    So it seems to me the arguments for “Free Schools” are coming from politicians and media commentators who have no idea how the LEA system works, perhaps because they send their own children to private schools. Therefore it is throwing money for completely misguided reasons. It is an expensive set of hospitals were introduced for curing a disease which does not actually exist, but wealthy and influential people think it does, so their whims have to be catered for.

    You may have taken pragmatic advantage of this, but it does mean taxpayers’ money has been given to your school and so is not available for use elsewhere. You have gained, but others have lost. The question then is whether yours was the most urgent need. Money for “Free Schools” is not being allocated in the basis of need, it is being allocated on the basis of whim. Perhaps it is a nice idea to allocate a little money on the basis of whim, but should we be doing it in a time when we are constantly being told about the budget deficit and the need for expenditure cuts to reduce it?

  • Matthew – there is a problem that exists… The school capacity we have doesn’t match the need for school places. There has been an increase in the birthrate and many primary schools are opening or being extended now, and in 5 years time we will need more secondaries. For me the Free Schools policy is about government abdicating its responsibilities. The Left may try to focus on Toby and Tarquin finally being able to study Greek or whatever, but as I see it it is administrations run by all parties that are failing to provide what is required. Free Schools are not a good solution to the problem of a lack of places.

  • Schools run by religious organisations that are avowedly creationist, seems to be a convincing argument against non-LEA-controlled schools. Does anyone really believe them when they say they wont teach creationism under the science heading? These people are true believers, and you can be certain that they will find some weasel way to subvert rational science.

    On the broader view, free schools, academies and others are simply the means to achieve the de-democratisation of education. There are many people of an authoritarian, manipulative, even sociopathic disposition who are capable of presenting themselves in such a light as to gain approval to set up something like these schools. The consequences, for pupils, could be grave,

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Jul '12 - 11:31am

    Alistair

    Matthew – there is a problem that exists… The school capacity we have doesn’t match the need for school places. There has been an increase in the birthrate and many primary schools are opening or being extended now, and in 5 years time we will need more secondaries.

    Yes, so let’s make sure what money there is available for new schools is allocated in a way that means the schools are where they are most needed. That’s what I’m saying, let it be in that way rather than allocate it to wherever someone with a bit of money and influence has some fancy whim.

  • Free schools don’t just get given money, the money follows the pupils not the school. If a brand new school appeals to parents where an existing one doesn’t then they should have the right to go there.

    For Liberals we sometimes seem incredibly authoritarian about how things should be done. Surely we all agree democracy is strongest when it is closest to the individual?

    As for the creationist argument, what’s to currently stop this happening? We’re talking about groups that’ll lie in order to achieve their ends and the only means of stopping them is a pre-announced inspection twice a decade. The problem is now different, other than that much more effective action will be taken by outraged parents who have the choice of schools for their child.

    The only way to ensure good schools is to use direct democracy and give people choice over the school.

  • Peter Watson 19th Jul '12 - 2:01pm

    @Tommy
    “Free schools don’t just get given money, the money follows the pupils not the school. If a brand new school appeals to parents where an existing one doesn’t then they should have the right to go there.”
    Money is taken from the education budget to help set up free schools before the pupils are there for the money to follow. If free schools are being set up by converting private schools or by parents who wish to provide an exclusive private education for their children at the state’s expense, then this is also an additional burden on the education budget. Moving resources towards one school means moving them away from another: if that school was already in difficulty, how does this help improve things fro the kids that are already there? Multiple smaller schools competing for kids will require more buildings to be cleaned, lit and heated, more inspections, more marketing departments: all things that divert money and resources away from the education of children.
    For me, the fundamental question is “Should schooling be a market where parents take their custom to whichever provider takes their fancy?”. I can happily change my car insurance provider each year, but would hate to move my kids from school to school. Maybe it’s no big deal if a local shop closes because it cannot afford to compete with a supermarket, but if a school is allowed to fail then the lives of many young people are damaged. I think that the provision of education (and health) is too important to be left to the whim of market forces; it is a place for coordination and collaboration, not competition.

  • Peter Watson 19th Jul '12 - 2:23pm

    @Tommy
    “As for the creationist argument, what’s to currently stop this happening?”
    The national curriculum. As I understand it, free schools have the freedom to opt out of this.
    Under the current system parents have the freedom to take their children out of mainstream education and teach them any nonsense they choose, but with free schools the rest of us would be picking up the bills.

  • STV for elections to Camden Council would be better answer.

  • @Peter Watson – hear, hear! The ‘choice’ Tommy favours is to bus your kids several miles, whatever the environmental costs. I want a good, local, secular, school for my kids. Is that too much to ask? Sadly, I’m beginning to think that supporting the Liberal Democrats is not the way to get it.

  • “In my ward in LB Camden the Labour administration has refused to take action to meet the shortage of primary school places. They have fudged the issue with figures that show that they are adhering to statutory requirements. … children and parents have been failed by the system. So with my support those parents applied to set up a free school … This was the only solution to a very real problem”

    OK, I grant you that local authorities can make mistakes. When they decide not to spend money and meet perceived needs (perhaps because they can’t possibly raise that money when capped?), they may be making mistakes.

    But whose responsibility is it to get things right?

    If setting up a free school is “the only solution”, are we moving to a system in which local government is to be free to abandon responsibility for providing adequate schooling? Where it is to be assumed that in nice areas, parents and/or commercial organisations will step in to sort everything out? While in nasty areas, nobody will sort anything out, and decline will accelerate?

    This is no solution.

    Let’s go “back to basics”, to coin a phrase. If your Labour administration are failing, and if you can convince the voters that it is their fault (and not the fault of a central government cap), then you can turn the b*ggars out at the next election. Isn’t that better than relying on a bunch of creationist ideologues, commercial chancers, and assorted well-meaning idealists to keep us properly provided with schools?

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