Next time you hear a Government Minister mention, in serious tones, the words ‘deficit’ and ‘tough economic choices’ remember that, as a result of Michael Gove’s education policies, taxpayers will soon be helping out ridiculously wealthy parents by funding private school places – including the Maharishi School in Lancashire, where fees reach £5,000-£7,000 a year in exchange for a curriculum grounded in the study of transcendental meditation.
This surprising development comes courtesy of the much-maligned and increasingly dotty free schools policy, as independent schools apply for the new status and, critically, the public funding which follows it. No wonder free schools, the coalition’s flag-bearer for educational reform, are opposed by so many who see them as a drain on finite resources, with money flowing away from existing community schools and, in this case, towards those who can hardly be described as most in need.
But it could be, as Mike Baker argues here, that free schools are little more than a sideshow, a distraction from the real shift in school status: the headlong charge to Academy status.
It is hard to believe that the number of free schools will break three figures any time between now and the next election. Aside from the handful of existing independent schools that will convert, the sheer complexity of setting up a school from scratch will deter all but the brave or the bonkers (or both).
Given the attrition rates involved in such an endeavour, you would need thousands of interested parties in order to end up with any more than the odd school here and there – and there is no sign of such enthusiasm (partly because the coalition have completely distorted the demand for free schools – most parents find the idea of setting up their own school laughable).
Yet the same cannot be said for Academy schools, which are popping up all over the place as Heads rush to make the change and grab the extra cash on offer. Certainly, the incentives and the arm-twisting from the top is pushing in one direction only; what started as a drip is now becoming a torrent and, with only one in five school leaders ruling out conversion, it looks like Academy status will become the norm.
This is perhaps the real education story of the coalition’s first year in power: not the free school ‘movement’ (if it can be described as such a thing), with the ubiquitous Toby Young, the Lancastrian meditators and – brace yourself – the Birbalsingh experiment in Lambeth, but the seemingly relentless shoving of schools towards Academy status.
What is most striking about this change is not necessarily the virtues (or otherwise) of the policy itself, but, like so many of the coalition’s boldest reforms – think NHS – they are being carried out without any real sense of consent or agreement, let alone demand. Indeed, the coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats made no mention of Academy schools, except to say that they will be expected to follow an ‘inclusive admissions policy’.
Alongside ‘deficit’ and ‘tough economic choices’, it’s best to add ‘free school’ to your list of words spoken by Ministers when they want to disguise some dastardly deed. Because, if Michael Gove has his way, while free schools take the flak and the fire, the local school near you will quietly, surreptitiously become an Academy school – whether you like it or not.