The 12 Op-Eds of Xmas (Day 3)

Throughout the festive season, LDV is offering our readers a load of repeats another chance to read the 12 most popular opinion articles which have appeared on the blog since 1st January, 2008. Third up is this article by Christopher Leslie, which appeared on LDV on 8th July…

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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