Sunday, October 4, 2009

Free Schools - Why I Support Them

Be in no doubt: The Tories are making the running at the moment. On welfare, they recognise the need for bold action and a step-change to making work pay. Likewise on education their free schools idea is a winner.

I say this not because I don't believe there will be huge difficulties. There will be. All sorts of problems will be caused when the first schools open - admissions, the challenge to existing schools, duplication, inequality - you name it. They will be legion.

But to dwell on these - as many will do - is to miss the larger point. Which is that free schools will break the current stranglehold that local authorities have on what is available to our children. Free schools allow resources to follow demand. They encourage diversity of provision. They pass economic power from people like me (or rather the educationalists I am elected to watch-over) to parents.

The reason I am probably sounding so fundamentalist on this issue is that the ecology of schools in my own town - Bury St Edmunds - is about to be completely destroyed by a local authority following a particular line that all schools should be two-tier.

This is regardless of the fact that just about every parent in the town (well I would say 85%) favours the current system. Three new County Councillors, myself included, were elected on a platform of local choice and opposition to this imposition. The money for change has pretty much dried up from Government. But still the juggernaut rolls on. Because, Suffolk's Tory leadership tells us, they have a democratic mandate to do whatever they like to education.

My own view is that it actually isn't up to politicians to tell people what kinds of schools people should send their kids to . Schools should conform to what parents demand of them.

Further to this, the effect of free schools will be to add a much-needed competitive edge to a system which seems stuck into the idea that we should have just the right number of places for the number of kids - resulting in even mediocre schools being guaranteed an intake. Competition, be it in the private or third sector - raises everyone's game - and shows the poorer players for what they are. Presently such schools are protected and just given exhortation to improve. Not good enough by my book.

While the new Free Schools will be disruptive, I think their presence will make Councils far more concerned than they are now with what parent, rather than Whitehall, wants.

Are you listening, Suffolk County Council??

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