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Tristram Hunt: One minute he's for, the next he's against free schools

Free schools have been getting a bad press recently. The headmistress of a new primary in Pimlico resigned unexpectedly, a secondary in Derby was judged "dysfunctional" by Ofsted and another in Bradford stands accused of financial mismanagement. Does this prove that free schools are a "dangerous ideological experiment" that is "reaching the end of its natural life" as Labour's new Shadow Education Secretary claims? 

To answer that question I think we need to unpack Tristram Hunt's phrase. 

First, let's deal with the "dangerous" bit. Are the 174 free schools that have opened so far more likely to fail pupils than the average taxpayer-funded school? Not according to the regulator. Yes, there have been some high-profile problems, but 72 per cent of the free schools inspected by Ofsted have been judged "good" or "outstanding", which is above average. To date, only two of the 174 have been rated "inadequate".

Does Hunt mean they're dangerous because they employ unqualified teachers? The headmistress who resigned from Pimlico Primary School didn't have a postgraduate certificate of education (PGCE) when she was appointed (though she had one by the time the school opened) and much has been made of that by opponents of free schools. But a person doesn't have to have a PGCE to be qualified to teach. Brighton College employs 39 teachers without formal teaching qualifications, including the headmaster, and that didn't stop it being named the 2013 Independent School of the Year by the Sunday Times. On the other hand, possessing a PGCE doesn't automatically make you a good teacher. According to a 2010 Panorama investigation, 15,000 teachers currently employed in state schools are "incompetent". So it's doubtful that unqualified teachers are any more dangerous than qualified ones.

The second part of Hunt's phrase is the word "ideological" and on the face of it that's not true either. Let's not forget that support for free schools isn't confined to the two parties that comprise the Coalition. Several prominent members of the Labour Party have voiced their enthusiasm too, including Tony Blair, Andrew Adonis and — bizarrely — Tristram Hunt. Forty-eight hours before condemning free schools as a "dangerous ideological experiment", he told the Mail on Sunday he wanted to put "rocket boosters" under the policy.

Nevertheless, it's true that defenders of free schools are, for the most part, right-of-centre and one of the reasons they're attracted to the policy is because it involves a transfer of power from the state to voluntary associations. Reducing the size of the state is a guiding principle of conservative politics and, in that sense, the free schools policy is ideological.

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Rhys Jaggar
October 23rd, 2014
3:10 PM
1. The brand is a Tory one so Labour have to trash it. That's unethical and wrong, but it's the reality of power politics. Forget the people, forget frugal financial planning, smash it on principle! 2. The concept of Free Schools is being attacked, instead of improving the due diligence procedures which allowed certain schools to be founded that should never have been given the go-ahead. Again, that's politics, not societal value-add. When did that ever get a politician's attention?? 3. Innovation always finds it easier in a start-up situation. If a school already has pupils, it's almost impossible to do anything radical as you have a 'legacy' population of children doing things differently. That's not very practical. Free Schools are a way to encourage radical thinking, innovation, small-scale. Adopt the best, quickly stop the worst. 4. Engaging parents in running schools, if suitably qualified, is obviously healthy. They are parents, so they want good schools for their kids. The great thing about parents is that they mostly work in different arenas. That broadens the perspective beyond teachers and councillors. Internships, careers advice etc etc are likely to be far better with such breadth of professional experience.... 5. Benchmarking LEA schools vs non-LEA schools. Until you actually try both ways, all arguments about LEAs are dogmatic and political. This way, you get the chance to actually find out if the difference is actually marked, miniscule or favouring the status quo.

Malcolm McLean
December 8th, 2013
3:12 PM
It's illegal for a free school to select pupils by ability or by skin colour, and possibly parental income too - I'm not sure exactly what the law says on that last. So it's hard to see how a free school can be divisive, except on the interest principle. Parents who attach a high value to Latin will be attracted to WLFS, those who feel that the emphasis should be on science and technology might go elsewhere. I don't see anything inherently wrong with that. Parents are the people most likely to act in the best interests of their own children. "Parents decide" becomes a bit difficult in some situations, like creationism or radical Islam, but these are issues for only a minority of free schools. These marginal concerns cannot be allowed to drive policy for the majority, which should be that parents decide which schools flourish and which ones close, and that it's easy to set up a new school. A few failures are not a failure of the policy, but an essential part of it. Every new school coming into the system has to be balanced by another one failing. Bad schools close, new ones take their place, and the system reaches a state where almost all of the schools are very good, with just a few weak spots being steadily eliminated by competition. It's also a fair policy. A teacher once told me "we get all the rubbish [I'm afraid State school teachers really do talk like that], then they wonder why it's failing". With a free school system, you can't change the children. Maybe your results aren't very good. So someone else can set up a school next door and do better. If that doesn't happen, then maybe it's not possible to get better results with that intake. A school can only fail if there's some else who can do a better job, in which case it's right the other person should teach those children, regardless of where the original school came in its Ofsted inspection. There's another advantage to free schools I don't like to mention. Public expenditure can be cut gracefully. Currently there's a flat per capita grant of 6,000 a head. Let's say that public finances come under pressure, and it's necessary to reduce that to 5,000. Now any free school worth its salt will have contingency plans for a dip in numbers. The schools respond by making a myriad of little, local, efficiency savings and reductions. The system is worse, how could it not be, when we've cut by 20%. But it hasn't responded catastrophically.

November 27th, 2013
10:11 PM
I cannot take a working class hero named Tristram seriously, so I didn't bother reading. If there's one thing I fekking hate, it's middle class fekking soshulists. Have a nice day.

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