U Turn or not?
Stephen Twigg,when he was Shadow Education, managed to tie himself in knots over Free schools, seeking to face two ways at once.
The message he conveyed was that he was uncomfortable with Free schools and that their future, post – election if Labour won , would not be assured .But given there is a capacity shortage, he argued, schools should be set up where there is most demand for them, not an unreasonable stance. Free schools have not always been set up where there is a shortfall in capacity and are disproportionately represented in London. But he also stressed that no type of school should have a priority, all should be treated equally. As things stand academies and free schools are being actively promoted by the government. There are also presumption arrangements in place that require LAs to seek proposals to establish an academy/free school where they have identified the need for a new school in their area. The LA is responsible for providing the site for the new school and meeting all associated capital and pre-/post-opening costs.
So Twigg was clearly implying that this favoured treatment would end under Labour. However, it should be stressed, that he never threatened the status of existing academies and Free schools, or those in the pipeline. There are, after all ,some very good free schools operating that have ‘Labour’ stamped all over them. (think School 21)
Tristram Hunt, has replaced , Stephen Twigg ,as Shadow Education Secretary . Hunt’s spokesman told the Times (11 October), in response to rumours that Labour might clamp down on Free schools, through building regulations “…We are very clear on free schools — those that are open and in the pipeline will remain. We will ensure that educational innovators, parents and social entrepreneurs will have a vehicle for opening new schools through ‘parent academies’. To these people, we have a clear message: Labour is on your side.”So, on the face of it, the Free school lobby hasn’t got much to worry about. (Although clearly the days of setting up schools in areas where there is not significant demand for new capacity are probably already over). In an interview with the Mail on Sunday, Hunt said he wanted to put “rocket boosters” under the new policy. ”What I am saying is if you want to do that when we are in government we will be on your side. There has been this perception that we would not be, and I want people to be absolutely clear that we are. I am putting rocket boosters on getting behind parents and social entrepreneurs,” he said. “We are not going to go back to the old days of the local authority running all the schools – they will not be in charge. ”We will keep those free schools going. We aren’t in the business of taking them down. We have to clear up this question which has dogged Labour education policy since we entered opposition and since Michael Gove began his reforms, as to what we’d do. We just want to say, ‘You are setting up these schools, we are behind you’.”
Crucially, though, Hunt reiterated the point that these schools would only be established where there is a real need. Read this carefully. He said on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday “We are in favour of enterprise and innovation, but here’s the difference. First of all, it’s going to be in areas of need because we have a school places crisis going on. Secondly, it’s going to have properly qualified teachers in these schools; and thirdly, you’re going to have systems of financial accountability, transparency.”
The latter point is interesting because this could involve more local authority responsibility. Accountability is a major issue for Labour. Hunt believes the recent problems at al-Madinah highlights one of the central flaws in the free schools initiative – that there is minimal oversight. Schools are directly accountable to the Secretary of State but some are calling for a ‘third tier’ to aid accountability.
And will the local authority presumption referred to above survive a Labour government?