Opinion: Why we should back liberal Free Schools

Tony Blair won his first election in 1997 on the back of his refrain, “education, education, education”, and in the run up to a likely 2010 general election the party leaders have already begun positioning themselves as offering radical proposals for education.

Nick Clegg and David Cameron have both voiced their support for seeing the introduction of Swedish-style ‘free schools’, where state funding, as is already standard, follows individual pupils; but in the case of free schools it also follows pupils into independent schools. Both Cameron and Clegg have made it clear that these schools would not involve academic selection (indicating a return to grammar schools) or be able to charge a top up fees (indicating the introduction of school vouchers). Both leaders are right to do so. Taking either or both those options would see an end to the meritocratic basis on which education is provided: state funding in education should go to all, regardless of ability, and shouldn’t be used to help the rich gain superior education.

On a similar theme, both leaders should also make it clear that they will not allow other barriers of entry to pupils, such as religion for example, and they shouldn’t become places for specific NGOs to promote their own agendas. Free schools need to be inclusive once pupils are in them.

Both Clegg and Cameron are right to support free schools: they offer a great chance to increase civil society, to provide better education in Britain, a greater level of plurality, and parents and children having increased choice and control in their education.

By declaring that the Conservatives will not allow firms to make a profit from the fee school system, however, Cameron is failing to fully utilise the opportunities free schools could offer, and which can only be accessed by allowing profit-making into the system. This might be the tokenistic suspicion of any institution making profit from state money; a refusal to take that idea to a public he fears won’t accept it; or that he’d rather see free schools be the sole domain of NGOs – which reveals a scary amount of paternalism. Whichever is the case, Clegg should not make the same mistake.

Private firms offer the biggest chance in free schools. We don’t really need another explanation of how private firms have incentives to perform best, but needless to say they have the biggest incentive to move into areas where schools are failing, rather than where the best pupils can be found. Islamic schools will be set up where there are Muslim students, Christian schools where there are Christian pupils, etc. Allowing parents to set up schools in their own areas is an admirable aim, and one that we should encourage – but it is an idea that only middle- and upper-class parents will have the time and social capital to put into practise. If free schools are about improving inner-city failing schools then we need to allow firms to set up schools, because they are the most likely to do so.

Michael Gove, the Conservatives’ shadow minister for children, schools and families, has argued his party will entice free schools into city centres by offering extra cash to do so. But, first, what is the point of extra money as an incentive if no profit will be made from it? And, secondly, if the free school programme is meant to be about offering better schools to inner cities, then why are the Conservatives not offering to put the extra cash into inner city state school, too? Are they trying to bias the system towards fee schools? It seems hollow to talk about the free (and therefore fair) market and helping inner city areas, whilst refusing to offer money to state schools.

The Lib Dems have the opportunity to take education out of the direct control of tinkering politicians. The Conservatives claim that free schools would be free of the Local Education Authorities, by allowing the free school to require only the approval of central government. For a move which is justified as creating greater independence in education, placing the power to approve free schools in the hands of central government is puzzling, and again can only be conceivably motivated by Cameron’s wish to see free schools assume a particular model. We could guarantee that free education is really free by giving an independent body (OFSTED is an obvious choice) the power to approve the creation of a free school, taking the ‘we know best’ attitude of politicians out of education.

The Conservative proposals – which maintains this central control, bias funding against conventional schools, and forces firms to stay out of the market – reveal a trend to ensure that free schools are not just part of an educational programme but also a cultural one. For the Conservatives, free schools are not just about delivering a good education, but about creating Cameron’s new ‘perfect society’. So much for small government.

Free schools offer a liberal approach to reforming the education system, and Lib Dems should be at the forefront of ensuring that they are utilised to their full potential: to create an inclusive education system based on giving pupils a good education, not distracted by a utopian cultural programme.

* Christopher Leslie is president of Leeds Young Liberals.

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71 Comments

  • What a set of awful ideas and misconceptions.

    It is not a good idea for
    >Islamic schools will be set up where there are Muslim students, Christian >schools where there are Christian pupils, etc

    Who are the etc? Hindu Schools, Athestist Schools, The Moonies, the Pagans? The Taliban?

    If a group of parents take over the school I send my children to, I have less choice, not more. What is more, I have paid from my taxes for the school now handed over to some company or “community” group.

    And lets stop talking about failing schools – on the whole it is failing parents and failing society that are creating the problems. If children from poor housing and low income families do worse at school, why not try tackling the poor housing and low incomes?

    There are very few politicans tinkering with schools – I guess the author has never actually been a Councillor. Councils don’t have any real powers and ministers have powers but little control.
    I bet the author couldn’t give 5 examples of meddling politicians.
    No selection by academic or religious criteria? except we know it will take place by the back door. (oh the school has a muslim ethos but Christains are welcome) And why are these two areas even considered for exemption? If parents want academic selection why should meddling politicians stop them?

    A liberal approach would be based on co-operation – schools working together under the guidance of the democratically elected local education authority. A liberal approach would recognise that a coherent education system has schools that cater for the needs of the whole population be they special needs, gifted, emotional and behavioural problems age 4 of 44

  • James Shaddock (General Executice Member, Liberal Youth) 8th Jul '08 - 10:12pm

    I think the free school model is promising, however what does it mean in terms of curriculum?

    Are we to keep the centrally controlled National Curriculum or will each local authority and/or school be able to set its own agenda?

  • We don’t really need another explanation of how private firms have incentives to perform best…

    In this case, we certainly do. The best performance for a private company is not necessarily the best one from a pupil’s point of view.

    For example, a private company may improve its short-term performance by adding large vending machines dispensing unhealthy drinks. Never mind that this wouldn’t be in the long term interest of the children.

  • Good stuff, but why not take it a step further?

    Sell off the state schools to private companies, and use the proceeds to cut taxes. This is the kind of bold, radical thinking we need right now, if we’re going to avoid being squeezed by Clegg-lite Cameron.

    And what’s so wrong with academic selection? There’s a big constituency out there that would welcome more academic selection – and much of it is in the seats we’re trying to defend against the Tories. An ideal opportunity to completely outflank them!

  • Hywel Morgan 8th Jul '08 - 11:22pm

    “Christopher Leslie is president of Leeds Young Liberals.”

    Does this mean Leeds Liberal Youth or is this an article by a non-party member?

  • It is presumably Liberal Youth, although I can only assume that it refers to the Leeds University society and not the whole of Leeds, so errors all around really.

    As to this being economic liberalism, I think that only goes so far. We are currently entering a period where we already have over-capacity in the school system. So, what would this actually mean? How will these new schools by started?

    Certainly there will be plenty of religious choices emerging. In terms of “free schools”, where are they to start in this environment? I guess they could be used to replace failing schools, but thats just academys plus. Or, they could just be speculatively founded, but it is not obvious that theres any great demand to be able to do this, and in neither case is there any obvious transformation of the whole system.

    Realistically, this requires what occurs in Sweden and other countries- overinvestment. To create choices, the government has to commit to funding a large number of unused student places.

    Nobody seems to be proposing that we do this, so what we are really seeing is allowing various groups to muscle in on running schools without giving parents a real chance to show their approval through market mechanisms. So there is decentralisation, but no increase in accountability that economic liberalism brings and the only major end result likely to be more religious schools.

    Its not a bad direction, but it is currently being persued in gimmicky fashion, not with the object of introducing real choice but as a quick fix for inner-city areas.

  • Bishop Hill says: – “Capital investment would come from investors”

    No it won’t – these “free” schools will take over existing buildings. And when the people who run them insist on Eton Style uniforms, a trebling of homework, compulsory religious worship, etc etc
    there will be spare capacity in the school. Markets may be pefect theorectical constructs, the reality is that people are not. The houisng market being an obvious example where the way “the market” works cannot be dientangled from planning laws, legislation, housing stock levels, wealth, and a host of other factors. To imagine education or housing is like choosing between which of two sandwich bars you will buy a sandwich from is niave.

  • James Shaddock (General Executice Member, Liberal Youth) 9th Jul '08 - 8:32am

    @ Hywel Morgan

    That’s why I put my party role in my name. Call out the the continuings. However, Liberal Youth branches have the right to call themselves what they like, so some branches are just ‘x uni Lib Dems’ such as Oxford University Liberal Democrats and some prefer ‘Young Lib Dems’

    @ Tinter
    we’ve recently been trying to encourage more non-university branches and pan-area ones such as Manchester Liberal Youth which is open to students of Manchester Uni, Manchester Met, other H.E and F.E institutions and anyone else under 26 in the area who wants to get involved.

    @ Mouse
    ‘the people who run them insist on Eton Style uniforms, a trebling of homework, compulsory religious worship’

    I certainly hope not.

    1. If you look at most of the schools throughout Europe, there are no uniforms. Why should we force children to confirm? It’s stuff like that which makes kids resent schooling as it feels forced. We should let them feel free to express themselves

    2. Home and work should be two separate things. You constantly hear of people complaining of the work/home balance being unbalanced, and that they’re not their for their children. Why would we let the same happen to children?

    3. Schools should teach Religous Studies, about all religions and aspects and most importantly, to all students, but religious worship in schools (unless specific students wants to, say in a prayer room) should be prohibited as in the US.

  • Andrew Duffield 9th Jul '08 - 11:01am

    Far better to RENT publicly owned sites/buildings to private organisations for the provision of schools, hospitals polyclinics, and any other services that local people may (or may not) feel would be better delivered that way. The option then remains for the community to evict a poorly performing service provider, rather than be held to ransom because the private company owns the only high school or general hospital in the area and thus has an effective monopoly (new schools and hospitals being quite expensive to build, let alone find suitable sites for!).

    That is the fundamental and ongoing problem with PFI and we should avoid it like the proverbial plague.

  • Meritocratic means selecting people based on ability. You’re arguing for egalitarianism which means treating everyone the same regardless of their ability. The fact that you’ve confused the two explains a lot.

  • This really is a tough one to get across,

    >the people who run them insist on Eton Style uniforms, a trebling of homework, compulsory religious worship’

    >”I certainly hope not.”

    But that is exactly the kind of thing that people want these free schools for, and if they aren’t allowed to do that, how exactly are the free schools?

    I’d like a bit more than hope not – we’ve already had the Conservative shadow minister linking good exam result and children wearing blazers. We know the religiously minded believe that praying to God get results. Heaven knows it’s hard enough to keep it out of schools as it is.

    Homework – the majority of parents at my kids school who responded to a recent survey wanted more homework and perhaps would brought back the cane had they been asked.

    What most voters want are good schools within a reasonable distance. The free school route is a nightmare for people who live in villages or who aren’t easily able to transport their children miles each day to get to schools.

    Businesses aren’t usually run on the basis of good business ! They are run by human beings. Most business people are’t rapacious capitalists chasing every last penny.

    No one has answered my question – when a school goes “free” and parents have to find a differnet school to send their children to – how exactly that benefits them.

  • “The option then remains for the community to evict a poorly performing service provider, rather than be held to ransom because the private company owns the only high school or general hospital in the area and thus has an effective monopoly (new schools and hospitals being quite expensive to build, let alone find suitable sites for!).”

    But all these problems will be solved by the market. If a school is performing poorly, a competitor will see a business opportunity and open an alternative school.

    What’s the alternative? A bureaucratic procedure to decide which company operates the franchise? Not very liberal!

  • passing tory 9th Jul '08 - 1:44pm

    Mouse, I think the idea is that it provides a clear mechanism for change when the local school is no good. If the existing schools are fine they I very much doubt anyone is going to bother. But, if you are stuck in a village where the local schools are extremely poor, currently you are completely shafted. Either your move, or you cough up fees for an independent school (if there is one) or you cough up even more dough for boarding (if you are feeling really flush).

    Free schools provide a clear mechanism for breaking these sorts of situations (effectively destructive monopolies, where the state is the monopoly provider). Hopefully, the mere threat that parents and other groups could take their children out of a school should be sufficient incentive for a failing institution that is liable to loose pupils to get its act together.

    Also, I don’t quite get your point about uniforms. If a school wishes its children to dress in mourning garb, or silly blazers, or whatever then why not? Or do you think that sort of freedom should be quashed? (sure the cost is a consideration, but the uniform of my old school was pretty fancy and I don’t recall it being that expensive as we went for the simple expendiency of getting secondhand prety much everything).

  • Albert M. Bankment 9th Jul '08 - 2:35pm

    Er, paging James Shaddock:

    What the hell is an Executice? I won’t snactimoniously point a finger at your inability to spell ‘religious’, because fingers do tend to have a life of their own when you’re typing in a hurry.

    Nevertheless, if you’re going to parade your self-important little title in order to give spurious weight to what passes for argument, it might be ever so slightly a good idea if you were to spell it correctly; all the more so when the debate itself is about education.

  • “If a school wishes its children to dress in mourning garb, or silly blazers, or whatever then why not? Or do you think that sort of freedom should be quashed?”

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. The left-wingers are completely ignoring the freedom of the people running the schools.

    So why shouldn’t schools have the freedom to select what pupils they will take? They’re the ones who are going to have to cope with them for the next 5 years +, after all. But politicians and bureaucrats always think they know better …

  • passing tory 9th Jul '08 - 3:14pm

    Anon, personally I don’t have anything particularly against academic selection at the school level, although there are also advantages to operating a school with a streaming system so that kids who are strong in one subject can be challenged in that area while receving more remedial attention in other areas. Also, of course, there is the fact that you can move children up and down as their performance changes (although that isn’t quite as easy as some would have you believe).

    I guess the main objection to selection at the school level is that, in the past, this has tended to result in those who do not get into such schools not receiving as much attention (rather than receiving a different kind of attention, which is what would be desirable). Also, because the disruptive element will tend to concentrate in the lower performing sectors.

    If you were able to satisfactorily show that selection on ability led to a different but equally thorough eduction of those “rejected”, and that bad behaviour could be decoupled from academic underperformance, then I think the case of academic selection at the school level starts to become compelling.

  • Urgh. Free Schools. I think it’s odd that self-proclaimed liberals seem to be supporting segregation along class and religious lines, schools being funded by religious extremists, schools where, to quote the director of Sweden’s Kunskapsskolan corporation (a chain of Free Schools) ‘We tell our teachers it is more important to do things the same way than to do them well’. Where informing parents (who are really, afterall, the true customers in this exercise) of any progress their child makes is more important than whether their child is making real progress at all. We always complain of children being adversely affected by a market that tries to sell to them 24/7; school is one of the few havens that exist from this. Do we really want to change even that?

    What we should be following is the Finnish method of education- streaming, close teacher-pupil relations and more resources spent on more needy kids.

  • Passing Tory, that you are supportive of the policy is very indicative.

    >Free schools provide a clear mechanism for breaking these sorts of situations (effectively destructive monopolies, where the state is the monopoly provider). Hopefully, the mere threat that parents and other groups could take their children out of a school should be sufficient incentive for a failing institution that is liable to loose pupils to get its act together.

    But clearly it won’t – if there is but one school in your area (be it village or large housing estate) there is only be one school.
    That isn’t much of a choice.

    No one is going to build a new school for the same catchment area – think of the reality, lack of suitable sites, trouble getting planning permission, the fluctuating pupil numbers, the business risk that the school will be empty.

    Why assume parents or a school be primarily interested in academic success? Schools are quite happy to lose pupils or not attract them for a whole host of reasons, particularly religious ones. Does McDonalds worry that people it at Michelin Star Restaurants? It sells a product, that’s all

  • bishop hill

    But of course the Swedish system is based on academic selection, which Cameron and Clegg still can’t bring themselves to accept.

    If we don’t stop tying schools to the apron strings of the nanny state, and adopt a truly liberal system where schools have the FREEDOM to control their own admissions, the watered-down “free schools” proposed by Cameron and Clegg won’t give us the advantages of the Swedish system!

  • passing tory 9th Jul '08 - 8:57pm

    Mouse: No one is going to build a new school for the same catchment area – think of the reality, lack of suitable sites, trouble getting planning permission, the fluctuating pupil numbers, the business risk that the school will be empty.

    Why not? You seem to be assuming that a school has to be very large. The Swedish experience is that many of the new schools tend to be much smaller. In fact, IIRC, many of the schools just rent space in office blocks and so on.

    It is a complete myth that you need multi-million pound spanking new academies to have effective education. The most important thing, especially at primary level (where a lot of the really critical divergence between rich and poor is happening at the moment) is a good school ethos and motivated staff. That is very possible on even a really small scale, and is within the administrative capacity of many.

    Yes, local authorities often play silly buggers with planning permission in the UK and this is one of the things that would need to be looked at as part of such a policy; but that is quite soluble administratively.

    As for academic success (or not); well, I am sure there will be schools which do _not_ chase academic success. In fact, this is one of the weaknesses of the current system, where a one-size-fits-all approach means most schools do chase grades to a certain extent. But the important thing is that such schools will only be successful if there are sufficient parents who are interested in them. Personally, I imgaine there will be, and we may see a shift towards a more holistic approach in some areas.
    [I have nothing against freeform schooling; it works with some kids just like boot camp works for others. The current state monopoly does not cater for this varience at all well]

  • Paul Griffiths 9th Jul '08 - 9:07pm

    Anonymous: Although the article that bishop Hill links to says “Children must be admitted on a first-come, first-served basis—there must be no religious requirements or entrance exams.”

  • Paul

    More fool the Swedes, then – but no great surprise after all from a socialist country.

    But seriously the party really should be trying to free itself from this egalitarian nonsense of “comprehensive” education. People are different, and it’s not up to the state to try to force them all to be the same.

    Let’s just free the schools to make the decisions they need to make in order to do their jobs, and not force them into some failed ideological straitjacket.

  • Passing tory says:

    >In fact, IIRC, many of the schools just rent space in office blocks and so on.

    So rather than have a democratic say over their local schools, parents can abandon the science labs, woodwork rooms, computer suite, playing fields, kitchens or other facilities, and instead set up their own school by renting space in an office block.

    That way they can experience what it was like to be educated under a Conservative Government in the 1980’s with crumbling buildings and inadequate facilities.

    Of course schools aren’t just about buildings, that is why Eton is relocating to an industrial estate in Slough, or is it?

  • David Morton 10th Jul '08 - 7:27am

    ” Direct control of tinkering politicans”. Everyone is in favour of this kind of rhetoric until something goes wrong. Then they want a Politican to email,see at surgery, complain about and vote for/against. It would be 5 minutes before national political parties startd arguing about the minimum contract standards that free schools had to meet in order to be a recognised provider. You’ll never De Democraticise such a large amount of tax payers cash because the political “free market” won’t allow it.

  • passing tory 10th Jul '08 - 8:06am

    Mouse, you’re ranting.

    Precisely what effective democratic control do parents have over local schools at present? Not much. I suppose people can apply to join a board of governers, but even then this role is increasingly being reduced to ensuring that central government initiatives are met. There is, in practice, precious little democratic accountability.

    In terms of facilities, you are missing the point again. What need does a primary school have for workshops, science labs, computer suites, extensive kitches or any of the palava? Even specialised playing fields?

    You seem to have very fixed ideas about what a school should provide which simply doesn’t tally with my experience. A close friend of mine has set up a series of kindergartens and primaries in the most basic of surroundings and the kids are happy, the schools are thriving and the teachers enjoy their work. Also, incidentally, these schools manage to achieve extremely high levels of integration of SEN children (although there are practical limits to this which they are able to set themselves).

    But then I don’t live in the UK, but somewhere where this sort of initiative can be organised within the state system. To my mind it is absolutely bonkers that such social entrepreneurship is virtually impossible in the UK (unless you have a few spare million and want to sponsor an academy).

  • “Now we’ve cleared up the misconception about whether the Swedes allow academic selection or not, I should point out that none of us really knows whether streaming the academically minded and the practically minded into separate schools is a better solution or not. This is why my own inclination is to leave it to the market.”

    Well, of course it’s no accident that academic standards have plunged since the socialists enforced comprehensivisation.

    But as you say in a truly liberal education system admissions would be left to the market. This is the vital liberalising step Cameron and Clegg need to take.

    The other thing that needs to be tackled is this nonsense of “no top-ups” – no doubt by socialistic Sweden again. It removes a crucial element of any market. Are people really mad enough that they want to exclude the existing private sector from the new liberal education system?

  • Paul Griffiths 10th Jul '08 - 10:08am

    “… academically minded and the practically minded…”

    More evidence of the Morlock/Eloi syndrome. Those arguing (correctly, in my view) for choice and diversity do themselves no favours by implying that people divide so neatly into only two educational categories.

  • Passing Tory seems upset. I didn’t realise that mentioning anything about the record of the last Conservative Government was ranting. So we can’t discuss the role of the last Conservative government in stiffling centralisation of education.

    At least we have moved the debate on, with passing Tory conceding that far from there being a huge desire to set up new schools,

    “I very much doubt anyone is going to bother”

    followed by and here I paraphrase:

    anything above primary school is obviously too tough to contemplate, especially if you wish to have facilities beyond a bit of office space.

    so apart from the wonderful diversity of “boot camps” for 5 year olds there doesn’t seem to be a lot going for the proposal.

    >the Swedish system explicitly bans selection on any grounds, including religious and academic. All friskolor must admit pupils on a first-come-first-served basis.

    But the very process of first come first served is a method of selection, which some people will exploit. There must be some method of selection.

  • passing tory 10th Jul '08 - 3:14pm

    Mouse, the last Tory government did very little in terms of education. This was not because the problems were not there to see but because taking on the educational establishment was seen as a step too far. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake to let the situation fester but at the time it was very understandable.

    You rather mangle the context in which I said that people wouldn’t bother. If you are in a village and there is already a good school, then what is the point? The problems in the current system come when that local school (or, if you are really unlucky, all the schools nearby) are bad. This is the point where making it easier to set up another one can really help to remedy the situation. Otherwise, kids who are not lucky enough to have parents who can afford to move away are just stuck with a bad education and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it.

    Yes, primaries are going to be much easier to set up under this system than secondaries. I would have thought that would be fairly obvious. That does not mean that it is impossible to envisage more experienced organsiations / groups of people from setting up secondaries. Again, if you look at the Swedish experience you will find that the facilities of such schools might not satisfy your wishlist, but it seems such schools can achieve a great deal without a metal worshop or a full domestic science suite.

    Also, there is the not insignificant question of what to do with those who are unsuited to mainstream schooling, and this is another area where small, specialist schools have a definite place.

  • “For example – if I go out and buy a fridge I can select one entirely at random and the chances are it’ll still be quite a decent fridge – simply because there are other people out there who bother to know about fridges, thus forcing competing manufacturers into producing good and ever-improving fridges – and certainly better fridges than would be produced under a government monopoly.”

    I reckon your fridge would be of considerably poorer quality, if the government were controlling who the manufacturers were allowed to sell fridges to, and forcing everyone to pay the same price.

    In fact, it sounds like something out of 1950s Russia, doesn’t it?

  • Passing Tory, the last Conservtive Government did plenty in terms of education.

    In 1981 universities were given a month notice of a 18% cut to funding. The promise of no further cuts made at the 1983 general election was broken within a year as further cuts followed. Students laons were introduced – costing £1 to administer every £2 of loan.

    The 1979 White paper on education sought a 7% cut in funding over 3 years.

    The 1988 Education act allowed schools to opt out of the control of local education authorities (grant maintained schools or free schools?) with pupil based funding.

    but as ex-Conservative Cabinet Minister pointed out, the schools least able to opt out are the ‘poor’ school serving deprived areas. The policy was throwback to pre 1870 and it’s cheif effect would be social devisiveness and perpetuation of the underclass.

    Of course the 1988 Education Act also gave 400 new powers to the Secretary of State for education and science.

    The Thatcher Government decreased spending on education from 5.3% of GDP in 1980-81 to 4.9% in 1988-89.

    While the Tories promoted victorian values and attacked trendy teaching, pupils were taught in victorain classrooms with leaking roofs. (44% of schools in one survey at the time)

    there were schools where three generations had been educated in the same “temporary” classroom, and the Tories now so keen on Jamie Olivers healthy meals were shutting down the school kitchens and buy the cheapest junk food possible.

    Still, never mind the reality, stick with the theory.

  • I see the continuity Liberals (at least in Ryedale) want to stop parents choosing a school. Very Liberal.

  • By declaring that the Conservatives will not allow firms to make a profit from the fee school system, however, Cameron is failing to fully utilise the opportunities free schools could offer, and which can only be accessed by allowing profit-making into the system.
    […]
    Private firms offer the biggest chance in free schools.

    No. Really, no.

    Schools run by profit-making companies will exist to make a profit, not to provide a good education. If a company is running a school at a profit, that means that not all of the public money spent on that school is being spent on education. Whether that profit comes at the expense of the teaching staff (either fewer of them, or lower salaries – or both), of the curriculum options available to students, of the quality and size of the school building and the facilities on offer, or whatever, it will leave pupils disadvantaged and be a retrograde step. Funding this profit would require the government to massively increase spending without delivering any improvements to the service – as we have seen in healthcare, where historic rises in spending have been wasted, bled straight through the system by new private-sector providers who have simultaneously offered a worse service than that provided by the NHS they are supposed to replace.

    We don’t really need another explanation of how private firms have incentives to perform best,

    After two decades of that notion being proven conclusively wrong, in every area of the public sector, I think you ought to try and offer at least some sort of justification, if only so your idea can be treated politely rather than laughed into oblivion. Without giving us some idea of why you think that a profit motive would improve schools, despite all the evidence that when it comes to public services markets reduce standards whilst inflating costs, we’re left to conclude that you’re one of those types who hold a nonsensical crypto-religious belief that markets are naturally-existing phenomena and can sort everything out if only those interfering politicians would get out of the way.

    The Lib Dems have the opportunity to take education out of the direct control of tinkering politicians.

    And you are. How is delivering education into the hands of unaccountable plutocrats a step forward?

    We could guarantee that free education is really free by giving an independent body (OFSTED is an obvious choice) the power to approve the creation of a free school, taking the ‘we know best’ attitude of politicians out of education.

    And replacing it with the “we know best” attitude of OFSTED. You seem to have some sort bias against democratically elected and accountable politicians, preferring that we surrender education up to oligarchs with a few technocratic over-seers (no doubt selected by a committee of said oligarchs). Such a notion is neither liberal nor democratic.

  • Thank goodness for Gregg’s contribution: I sometimes wonder whether the party has been taken over by the Adam Smith Institute. The provision of education by the state in this country is imperfect in many respects, but at its core are layers of democratic accountability: the government is accountable to the electorate; local councillors are accountable to their electorates; school governors are partially elected and partially appointed by councillors. Sure, it is a system that is resistant to change and improvement like any large organisation, but democratic pressures do effect change. Ask yourself whether a concerned group of parents/voters would be more likely to be able to effect improvements in their local schools under the present system than if the schools were run by Tesco or Stagecoach.

  • Nick

    Excellent post.

    Of course, the point about rail services is that there’s no real competition, because the market isn’t truly open.

    This is exactly the kind of problem with Cameron’s and Clegg’s anaemic “free school” proposals. The providers would be hamstrung by all kinds of rules and regulations about admissions policy and what fees they were allowed to accept.

    To say nothing of the nonsense of some quango deciding who is allowed into the market and who isn’t. Ridiculous. The market will soon take care of that – investors will be far shrewder judges of potential providers than bureaucrats, for obvious reasons.

    And congratulations for having the guts to ask what’s so liberal about democracy. That question really needs to be asked.

  • Nick and Anon. I can only take your posts as being satirical – “what’s so liberal about democracy?” Very droll.

    The stifling of professionalism in education comes not through the system by which it is delivered but by the government dictating how education should be delivered – i.e. the national curriculum and all its associated targets. A liberal educational system should be to encourage as much diversity of provision and content as possible while still maintaining democratic accountability to the community, and that should be via local government, not monopoly capitalism.

  • Actually we did have the state running the telecommunications industry from relatively early in its development to the 1980s, and I think it made a pretty good job of creating and running an infrastructure that allowed equal access to every citizen who wanted the service. At least I didn’t get half a dozen scamsters phoning me up every week trying to get me to switch my account. I think it is at least arguable that the current free-for-all in the telecommunications industry has been responsible for more human misery and economic loss than would have been the case had it stayed a state monopoly.

    However, I certainly concede that the consequence would have been a much slower rate of innovation, and that is the point that I have been trying to make about education: the means of provision is less important than the diversity of content, but democratic accountability is also essential and that cannot be maintained were businesses to run our schools.

  • Absolutely.

    Most of the real liberals in the party may be too young to remember what it was like to live under socialism, but of course we’ve read about it in the history books and we know we don’t want to go back to three day weeks, power cuts, heaps of rubbish in the streets and piles of corpses at the cemetery gates. That was what it was like when the state ran everything.

  • Anon – you forgot the plagues of locusts and the Black Death. I don’t know how I survived those years.

  • Nick Cowen

    Thanks for confirming that this is a leg-pull – a cursory Internet search shows that no one has succeeded in tracing your bogus Franklin “quotation” earlier than the 1990s!

    “A word to the wise …”

  • I don’t think that anyone is disagreeing about the need for more choice in education: in fact it’s one of those annoying bromides beloved of all politicians. But we need the sort of choice that offers a wide diversity of content so that the individual can get a true education which suits him or her, but without sacrificing the democratic control that we currently have over education by handing it over to businessmen.

    My point above about Tesco and Stagecoach was not that I think they would be likely to run schools (although who’s to say?), but that they are typical of large corporations whose eyes are fixed on the bottom line of the balance sheet: certainly they will respond to customers if that improves their profits, but try getting them to do something because you believe it is right that they should do it and see where that gets you. One small example: my partner has tried to persuade Stagecoach to make their drivers wear name badges, so that at least passengers could know who was being rude to them, and has been totally ignored. If you think that these putative educational corporations would behave any differently to any other large corporation then you have a very rose-tinted view of capitalism.

  • Nick – I’m pleased to see that your support for the free market is ‘critical’, so I will admit that my support for state education is too, to the extent that my younger daughter didn’t go to school at all until she was twelve. However, your proposal above: “imagine companies set up by educationalists and teaching professionals…they would bring all their knowledge to the fore but not have any of the democratic OR bureaucratic restraints” fills me with horror.

    I am just about prepared to concede that, in extremis, I have to entrust my life to a member of the medical profession, but I am certainly not going to allow a private company of self-appointed ‘educationalists’ and teaching professionals (teachers?) to take charge of my children’s education without any form of democratic oversight.

    My partner and I were reported to the County’s Educational Welfare Department by our daughter’s school. I had every confidence that the democratic checks and balances in the system would ensure that we had nothing to worry about. I spoke to my County Councillor about the problem and the school quietly dropped the case. I do not see democracy as a ‘restraint’: it is an (imperfect) method of ensuring that everyone in our society is treated with equal dignity and respect, and surely that is an essential aspect of liberalism.

  • Nick, thanks for the discussion. There’s obviously quite a bit of common ground between us (which didn’t seem to be the case in the tone of your answer to my first post). I had a brief look at the Civitas website and you seem to be doing some good work. The sticking point for me, though, is still that I see an absolute necessity for local democratic control: if my conflict had been with a private company running my daughter’s school then I would have had no recourse to any external authority. Just because the democratic process does not always work perfectly, or fails to deliver outcomes which seem to be desirable, is no reason to scrap democracy and rely upon a belief that the market will automatically deliver those benefits instead. And just to be absolutely clear, I would never accept as democratic the state removing the rights of parents to withdraw their children from state provided education – proposals like that bring out the anarchist in me!

  • Paul Griffiths 13th Jul '08 - 4:53pm

    “In Sweden, the state schools adapted to improve what they had to offer once private schools were allowed to open.”

    If I were to suggest to you that statements like this are likely to be perceived as profoundly insulting to state school teachers, I’m guessing you wouldn’t know what I was talking about. Yet it’s just this sort of insensitivity that prevents liberal policies gaining greater acceptance.

  • Paul Griffiths 13th Jul '08 - 8:40pm

    “…state school teachers have an awful lot to gain from school choice…”

    I totally agree, which is why it so counterproductive to insult them. Civitas and Reform just can’t seem to resist throwing words like “lazy” and “ineffective” into their arguments about the state sector, for all the world as if they were afflicted by a form of libertarian Tourette’s syndrome. It’s unecessary and only serves to alienate those who should, as you point out, be your natural allies. Why do it?

  • Well this goes on and on and on without getting to the nub of the matter.

    Cameron at least has been clear that _his_ free schools won’t be allowed to make a profit. Clegg has left this issue unclear (deliberately?).

    In Sweden the free school system does allow private schools to make a profit, has been going for 16 years, and has finally got to the point where 10% of pupils are being educated privately.

    If free schools are banned from making a profit, that obviously closes the door to free enterprise, and limits it to charitable foundations and the like.

    So if 0.625% growth per year has been achieved in Sweden with the help of the profit motive, what on earth do people think could be done in Britain without the profit motive? Precious little, obviously. A few charity schools in the East End, and one or two other deprived areas, maybe.

    In the emasculated form Cameron and Clegg are proposing, this is nothing more than a political gimmick.

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