Free schools aren’t an extension of New Labour’s academies

20th October, 2011 1:14 pm

Although it’s politically convenient for the Tories to link free schools with New Labour’s academies and Thatcher’s grant-maintained schools, free schools are a Swedish import.

Swedish free schools were introduced in 1992. The Swedish free schools receive funding for each pupil, but are independent from the state. The thought behind these changes was to increase parent input and drive competition between schools up in the hope of improving educational attainment.

Though academics have researched the Swedish free school system, their data is limited. The most poignant conclusion, nevertheless, to emerge from their research is that free schools, by increasing competition, did marginally improve the education of some children.

However, the children that benefited from free schools were from highly educated families.  Those less fortunate – children from immigrant and low educated families – didn’t benefit at all.

Free schools, then, suffer from the same problem as comprehensive schools – the best schools are located in affluent middle-class areas. And if you want your child to receive a decent education, you will indirectly pay for it by buying an expensive house in that desirable catchment area. I therefore don’t see the point of free schools.

Besides the same flaw as comprehensive schools, there are other problems free schools create. For example, volunteers at free schools won’t be democratically accountable.  Children born into well educated households will increase their advantage over other children. Also, professional teachers, and their unions, will be undermined.

So, with all these problems in consideration, we must come to the conclusion that free schools are ideologically driven: they appeal to libertarians; they appeal to parents who think they know best; they compliment David Cameron’s Big Society.

Stephen Twigg, Shadow Secretary of State for Education, isn’t a libertarian, he doesn’t support David Cameron’s Big Society and he isn’t a pushy parent. So why the hell did he support free schools?

“Ah”, you may protest, “he’s a Blairite”.  I would, of course, have to agree. But so what? It seems Mr Twigg, according to this explanation, has been slurping down Michael Gove’s propaganda that free schools are an extension of New Labour’s academies. They are not.

The problem is that others in the Labour Party share this opinion and Mr Twigg’s double U-turn has bought this to everyone’s attention. They think, like Mr Twigg did, that the coalition government are merely erecting the public policy that New Labour happily provided the foundations for. These members have been fooled.

Academies were originally set up by New Labour to give special measures to failing schools in order to help them improve. Because of this remit, academies would always be finite and represent a minority. Together with reforms to the NHS, academies were part of New Labour’s quasi-market project.

The coalition government, on the other hand, have extended the amount of academies and changed their remit of ‘special measures to failing schools’ to ‘special measures to all schools’.  The coalition government, therefore, are introducing free-market, not quasi-market, reforms.

I don’t agree with either quasi or free-market reforms to our education or health institutions. Nonetheless, it’s still important to understand the difference between the two policies and, subsequently, the differences between New Labour’s project and the coalition’s.

If you are in the Labour Party and support free schools, you haven’t recognised these differences.

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