The Sunday Times

May 30th, 2010

Free schools will mean better schools. Nothing unfair in that

It’s funny how you miss them when they’re gone. I am beginning to feel the lack of John Prescott and the Dickensian quirkiness with which he expressed the true spirit of Labour. Remember “We created the green belt and we mean to build on it”? Last week Two Jags sprang to mind again with his sublime pronouncement of yesteryear on education: protesting against Tony Blair’s city academies programme, he had spluttered indignantly: “If you set up a school and it becomes a good school, the great danger is that’s the place they want to go to” — “they” being the middle classes. That, of course, would be unfair. As ever, this Prescottian ejaculation spoke volumes about the confusion, the conservatism and the angry egalitarianism that have blighted his party, our public services and our schools.

The current outcry against the new government’s new schools policy is very much in the spirit of Prescott: Michael Gove’s ambitious plan to turn all successful state schools into academies and make it easier for people to set up new state sector free schools is something the old left establishment regards with deep suspicion.

Ed Balls, the former Labour schools secretary, claims it will create a “two-tier” education system with the best pupils and teachers being “creamed off” and “poached” for academies and free schools, while money would be siphoned off from existing schools to pay for them and children in struggling local authority comps would be yet further deprived. “I fear”, he said piously, “that it will turn out to be deeply, deeply unfair.”

Luckily, the fears of Balls are balls.

Whatever reservations one may have about the free schools policy, it is not unfair. Anyone not befuddled by the spirit of Prescott need only go through the protests, one by one, to find they are unfounded. (By “free schools”, I mean both academies, existing and future, and free schools set up by parents, teachers and others, because there’s little difference: all will be free of local authority control and largely independent.) The left has always been allergic to independence from the state, on principle and out of self-interest, but in this case it cannot claim that independence means unfairness. The reverse is true.

Most critics say free schools are unfair to children left behind, so to speak, in schools still under local authority control, because the councils would lose money to the free schools that otherwise would have gone to council schools. That is simply untrue. The free schools will be funded directly from government, with the same money per pupil as other local schools get, along with some of the money the local authority normally holds back for services such as payroll and human resources — about another 10% of the total. The council will no longer have to provide those services for free schools, so its net loss should be zero.

Critics also claim new schools are unfair because the capital cost of setting them up — buildings, refurbishments, equipment and so on — would come out of the council’s existing education funds, again reducing its services to its own schools and children. Again this is quite untrue. The capital and start-up costs for free schools would come out of other government budgets.

Unfair, critics insist, to underprivileged children from poor homes: the brightest children and their pushy parents will be “creamed off” by the free schools, thereby reducing standards in left-behind council schools. Untrue. The free schools, like all state schools, will have to abide by the statutory admissions procedure, which forbids selection of any kind (apart from the tiny amount permitted at some specialist schools). Any child can go to a free school, with as good a chance of getting a place as anybody else. A curious proof of the fairness of the system is that parents who struggle for months to set up a free school may find that their own children do not get places in it.

Unfair, critics continue, because the best teachers would be “poached”. There does appear to be some truth in this, but only superficially. It’s true that free schools are able to ignore teaching unions’ collective pay bargaining and therefore can pay teachers what heads and governors think best. Of course that means free schools can tempt excellent teachers with excellent conditions. But council schools could do just the same, if only they dumped collective bargaining and union restraints. It is that, not the freedom to reward good teachers and sack bad teachers, that is unfair and wrong.

Unfair, critics persist, because the neediest children from the poorest backgrounds would be left behind in second-tier schools. And perhaps the most disruptive children would also find themselves there, after exclusion from free schools. That ought not to be true, because of the admissions policy, and free schools ought, with new energies and freedoms and cash incentives, to find new ways of helping such children. But even if it did prove to be true that the most troubled and underprivileged children were left behind in the council sector, that might actually be to their benefit. Such children will bring more money with them to their schools, under the new Liberal-Conservative policy, to help meet their needs; that will make their schools richer. Such schools could specialise and become centres of excellence.

More important, every council exists, surely, above all else to serve those who are most needy. The education department’s first duty, like the social services department’s, is to children who are not thriving in school. Besides, it ought to have occurred to opponents of free schools that idealistic teachers and parents might, as in the private sector, deliberately set up schools devoted to children with various problems, rejected everywhere else. Given a choice, parents would flock to them, as they do in the private sector. The squeamish might detect a faint whiff of selection, but why not in such cases? The government has specifically said it believes the most vulnerable children deserve the best of care.

“Unfair” is the final cry because free schools might be better than council schools — Prescott’s famous argument. That is ludicrous. What is truly unfair is denying all children a chance to go to a better school and stopping the creation of good new schools simply because a lot of children are still at bad old schools — the old socialist vision as memorably expressed by the newly ennobled Two Jags, Lord Prescott. Pupils win – no strings attached, News Review, page 7