When it comes to ‘free schools’, there seems to be a pretty significant difference of opinion between the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, and his boss, Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Between them they can’t seem to decide whether schools should be able to make a profit or not.
‘Free schools’ are Gove’s big, bold – and ever-so-slightly bonkers – idea for reforming education. The plan is to allow parents, teachers and businesses to set up their own schools, resulting (supposedly) in a more diverse education sector. If Gove has his way, free schools will emerge in their hundreds over the next few years.
There are some major flaws in all this.
I set out some of the arguments against free schools here, but to cut a long story short: free schools don’t raise standards; they increase social segregation; they lower the standard of school buildings (do you have a problem with your child being educated in an office block? Nick Gibb doesn’t); they cost a lot of money; and they divert resources away from existing schools.
So, I hear you ask, what’s the point?
I have a theory. Free schools are not really about education at all. They are part of a revolution the Con-Dems are planning. And the revolution is this: profit.
Many Conservatives have long looked at the state with a sense of antipathy bordering on rage. They are now ably supported by the Orange-Book Lib-Dem brigades, who are shaped by their hostility towards the state – particularly where it provides universal public services funded from the public pocket.
They look at schools and think: couldn’t we spend a bit less? Isn’t there money to be made in those classrooms?
Now, the Con-Dems are being cute. They know they weren’t elected in order to dismantle the state. So they are engaged in a concerted effort to do two things: first, denigrate what the state does, with endless talk of ‘waste’ and ‘inefficiency’; and, second, dress up the alternative in the seductive language of ‘choice’, or ‘freedom’, or ‘fairness’.
That’s exactly what they’ve done with free schools, arguing this gives parents the ‘choice’ to set up a free school. I have yet to see any published research or survey which suggests there are anything more than a handful of parents who would want to do such a thing. Most, I expect, would consider the idea with incredulity, baffled at the idea their lives are so time-rich they have the scope to add ‘set up and run a school’ to their daily to-do list. Ridiculous, isn’t it?
I’m more persuaded by the idea that charitable foundations may run some schools, particularly faith-groups (which is a whole different blog), but the reality is that the only institutions interested in moving into education in a big way are businesses. They would find the economies of scale appealing (a thousand schools means you could negotiate some real cut-price catering contracts), but they would only be interested if they could make money.
And this is where it gets interesting.
Nick Gibb, has said quite clearly – unequivocally – that companies should not be able to make a profit from schools. In fact he has said profit-making schools take vital funds out of education and move it straight into a companies bulging balance sheet. You can read the full interview here, but these were his exact words:
“The trouble with allowing companies to make a profit from providing schools is that it take money out of the education system, significant sums of money out. We want to make sure that all that money is retained within [the education system] and if it [profit] were necessary, fine but it’s not necessary…”.
The difficulty is that Michael Gove has said the complete opposite. He doesn’t have a problem with schools being taken over by schools and run at a profit. As he says himself, he is after all ‘a Conservative.’
I find myself thinking: I agree with Nick.
But there’s only going to be one winner isn’t there? No doubt Michael Gove will have his way.
The slow death of state education has begun. It will be allowed to wither on the vine, while it’s made easier and easier for business to get their foot through the door.
So, profit-making schools here we come! And, remember this: if you don’t like it, you have a choice – set up your own. Then if it all goes wrong, it’ll be your fault. Nice, eh?