Thursday, 20 June 2013

‘Labour will not continue with Michael Gove’s Free School Policy’

On Monday, Labour’s shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg gave a major speech that laid out for the first time the key ideas that will inform the party’s schools policy if it wins the next election.

The speech was, however, of enormous importance to the issue of Free Schools and to what is happening in Waltham Forest, as we will explain below.
It was an odd speech in many ways. For those who believe that state funded comprehensive education remains the best way to provide a broad, balanced and high quality education to all children, there was a disappointing, though perhaps inevitable refusal to disavow Labour’s responsibility for academy schools or to make any commitment to bring them all decisively under a single regulatory framework. There was also a big nod to the ‘freedom’ and ‘choices’ agenda in the proposal to allow all schools some freedom to move away from the National Curriculum in some areas. Quite what this means in practice is not clear.

However, there was a relatively unambiguous statement that the Free Schools policy, as currently conceived, will end under Labour.
There will be much devil in the detail, but there are some important points from the speech that need to be brought out.

1. Twigg was clear – new schools, of whatever sort, will only be built where there is a real need for places. This is a clear break with Gove’s policy. As Raphael Behr wrote in the New Statesman, Gove only uses the idea of demand as a cover for building new schools that can compete with existing ones, based on the idea that they wreak ‘creative destruction’ on the schools around them. Either they improve or they die.
2. Free Schools that exist, and any new schools that are built, will have to employ qualified teachers, avoiding a race to the bottom in standards (and costs). This will limit the freedom for Free Schools to aggressively compete other schools out of existence.

3. New schools will be built and parents will have a role to play in pushing for them. He referred somewhat opaquely to ‘Parent Academies’, which could be either trust schools or maintained schools (the legal model that academies and free schools use).
4. But, as well as having to show a real need (ie where there are not surplus places) they will have to be accountable to local communities. Twigg was vague here, as it is a difficult legal issue. Academies and Free Schools have no legal relationship with local authorities, signing funding agreements directly with the Department for Education. But the intention seems clear: there must be a local accountability framework for all schools and local communities must have a say in where and when new schools are being built. Twigg says he will be asking David Blunkett to lead a review of how this can be best done – a thought that may not warm the hearts of many, but how that review reports will be vitally important.

In general, it’s clear that those committed to a universal, progressive education system will need to build and sustain national and local pressure on the Labour Party and all parties ahead of the election.
What does all this mean for people in Waltham Forest? In short, it means that what has just happened in Waltham Forest in the last few weeks would not be possible under Labour, quite possibly the next government.

While groups like WSSI might be able to apply pressure for a new school, it is likely that they would have to work closely with the Local Authority to make their case.
While they might be permitted, even encouraged in many authorities, to seek a private sponsor, they would also be allowed to consider a trust school as an option.

They would have to demonstrate that they would be employing qualified teachers.
Finally, it is likely there would have to be some demonstrable and transparent public process for consulting and ensuring community support for any proposed school rather than the sick joke that has just been played on the people of Waltham Forest.

All of which ought to give those pushing the four proposed Free Schools pause for thought. Perhaps it’s time they started taking more seriously the need to set out their case, conduct a genuine, meaningful consultation and reflect, in a transparent manner, on what they hear back.
Perhaps it’s time they had a bit more respect for our community, our schools and basic democratic process.

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