Like a child with a lump of plasticine, Michael Gove’s free schools initiative may appear to be an exciting task, one which could be moulded into something great and exciting, but undoubtedly it will get very sticky and end up being a complete mess. David Cameron’s papier mâché ‘big society’ marks a major shift in the attitude of central government towards our children and young people. Thirteen years of Labour overwhelmingly placed the interests of the child at the heart of education policy. Now, rather than being focussed on improving standards in our schools, Cameron’s regime seems hell bent on off-loading the state’s responsibility to educate, to anyone who will take it off their hands.
The free schools policy is not an expression of concern or worry by the ConDem coalition. Nor does it stem from a genuine belief that children are best educated by charities and businesses. No, this flagship policy of David Cameron’s era of ‘new politics’ is rooted in the fundamental Conservative principle that the state is bad, that government should be smaller, that people should be left to do it themselves. No amount of smart language, air-brushed posters or open neck shirts can mask the fact that the same core principle of laissez-faire which has for centuries fuelled Tory thinking remains at the heart of Cameron’s agenda.
As Labour twiddles their thumbs, deciding who next to install as leader, we must not lose sight of the big policy debates that need to be had. Just as Labour is the party of the NHS, so too must we be the proud defender of our state education system. Admittedly, it was a Liberal who first introduced the idea of compulsory state education, but any claim to be defender of the country’s schools has been lost by a Liberal Democrat party who sold out any remaining principles for a chance to gnaw on the scraps dropped from the Tory top table.
While Blair’s city academies transformed the underperforming schools, with Cameron’s free schools policy those schools least in need of help will be first to be ‘freed’. Couple this with the shambolic cancellation of a large portion of the Building Schools for the Future program and very quickly the plasticine model begins to melt. Labour must be at the forefront of challenging the Tory attack on our schools, the lack of a leader must not stop us uniting to expose the flaws in Cameron’s shoddy workmanship. Just as we were proud of the NHS at 60, we must be proud of our record on education and be ready to lead the debate on the future of our schools.
While Michael Gove sits in the corner, dreaming of his next creation, Labour must stop twiddling and face head on the attempts to give over responsibility for schools to anyone who fancies it. The first sign of a storm will bring down Cameron’s papier mâché society and Labour must be prepared to present a viable alternative which places a strong, government led education system at its heart. Although there is debate over the future of New Labour, whoever leads our party next must never lose sight of education, education, education.