TORY INTERNAL DISSENT OVER FREE SCHOOLS
But their free schools policy is attracting support from unlikely quarters
Paul Carter, the Tory leader of Kent county council – the biggest education authority in England running 600 schools– embarrassed Tory high command just before the election by expressing fears that giving parents and other groups the funds to start “free schools” would threaten local education budgets. “At the moment the more academies and free schools you operate, under the current academy funding arrangements, the less maintained schools would get,” he said. Whether through naivety or calculation Carters intervention, mid-election when the Tories were clearly struggling to win an overall majority, profoundly irritated Gove and his education team .
He probably does, however, reflect some unease among a section of Tory local councillors over the consequences of removing so many schools from local authority control. The essential truth is that Local authorities, of whatever political hue, are producer interests and will fight tooth and nail to preserve their control over state education. Indeed the Tories have long been aware that some of their supporters in local government have reservations about free schools, though they were hardly expecting any to raise their head above the parapet during the election campaign. Interestingly although the Lib Dems favour Academies they want local authorities still to be very much part of this process, and the local accountability framework, commissioning new schools, reflecting their local councillors views, and their influence on David Laws, their education spokesman, with the Tories seeking to exclude Las from the process. Independence means from LA and centrally driven interference, according to the Tories.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies joined the fray claiming ‘Conservative plans to turn ever more schools into academies, and encourage parents to open academies in their area, could mark the effective abolition of local education authorities. Yet how these new schools’ start-up costs would be funded, where the money would come from, and whether this would mark the end of collective wage-bargaining for teachers, has not been made clear’. Tories have actually said that they will help fund new free schools by accessing the BSF budgets. They also intend allowing schools to open up, rather like some US Charter Schools in old shops apartments etc, which will reduce their start up capital costs.
The Michael Gove moved quickly to limit damage telling the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Carter had “told me on the record that he is 100% supportive of our proposals”. Carter later issued a statement in which he blamed the BBC for trying to create a division “that doesn’t exist” and insisted he fully backed Gove’s proposals. “I am 100% behind Michael Gove’s education plans, which will introduce more competition, give parents more choice and help drive up standards across the country,” he said. “The BBC is trying to create a division between us that doesn’t exist. “An issue I have been discussing with Michael is ensuring that funding between different types of schools is fair and equitable, and I’m totally confident that this would be the case with a Conservative government.”
The New Schools Network says that well over a hundred parents groups have expressed an interest in setting up free schools.
We know about Toby Young’s efforts with parents in West London to set up a free school and most recently Stephen Pollard who, along with Toby Young, has never voted Tory in his life, voted Tory this time around specifically because of their free schools proposals.
The TES revealed a couple of weeks ago week that its research – in which a sample of heads from every region in England was interviewed – indicates that more than 500 schools would accept the offer and opt out of the state system next term, while around 1,500 more would consider it. It could mean as many as one in ten state-funded schools leaving national teacher pay deals, the national curriculum, and local authority support and control.
A group of state school Headteachers has just written to the Daily Telegraph, the first time state school heads have spoken out collectively in favour of Tory policy, offering their support to free schools. The letter is signed by members of the Foundation, Aided Schools and Academies National Association, which represents 1,000 state schools. It described itself as non-political and insisted its demands for more school freedom have already been put to Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Carter is right though in one sense. If a failing maintained school in his authority becomes an academy, then, the total amount of money the local authority receives to educate children in Kent will fall, since it will have one less secondary school on its books. The money follows the pupils to an extent, so if a local education authority is educating fewer pupils it will of course receive less money. In addition if a pupil Premium is introduced there will be winners and losers, (something the Lib Dems and Tories keep quiet about) as disadvantaged pupils would have more per capita funding attached to them, and this would mean that some schools benefit while others will lose out.
But one thing that local authorities and unions will not tell you is that demand for secondary school places across the United Kingdom is rising and may become so great, over the next few years, thanks to a combination of increased immigration, migration and population growth that additional places created by “free schools” will almost certainly be needed to meet this increased demand . And far too many local authorities, as we have already seen in the Primary sector, have failed to anticipate or plan for additional demand .
Nobody is pretending its easy but planning ahead to ensure their is sufficient capacity is one of the main jobs of an LEA.