The 'Free School' movement championed by Education Secretary Michael Gove, of which more later, has a number of fairly obvious drawbacks pointed out by a lot of people, a short summary of which in a West London context (and this is a West London story) could read roughly as follows:
1. Allowing schools to be set up semi-randomly by people goes against any idea of coherent planning for anticipated future numbers of children entering the system.
This resulted in the previous government using something called the Primary Capital Programme to help authorities such as Ealing cope with the demographic pressure, and that capacity enhancement is still needed whatever Michael Gove decides. However, new brooms being what they are you might well put money on this programme to take a funding haircut come the CSR, not least since his free school funding target is, to say the least, ambitious:
The whole concept of 'taking education out of local authority control' effectively breaks off the levers by which the local community can provide new school places, of course, and simultaneously docking funds required for fixing the known primary school shortfall is effectively adding insult to injury. However, Toby Young has already got an answer for this which is that if by some kind of mystical process you detect more births occurring in your area, possibly before you actually have a child or move to the area, you take the time to set up a quick free school to take up the slack, and close it down when the same mystical process bing-bongs that the birth-wave has passed. Can anyone see the flaws with that?
2. It's centralising, not localising
As hinted above, the existing model was local authorities working with central government. The new model appears to be central government working with gittish middle class journalists. I'm unsure to what extent this develops and facilitates strong, competent local control of service delivery - for one thing what mechanism is in place to protect the system from contracting a virus formed of idiots applying to set up Dunning-Kruger Academies, banking the cheque and then wasting money due to incompetence? Evidently this mechanism would have to be in the form of a bureaucracy and given that Michael Gove is driving it this would inevitably be in Whitehall, not the town hall. So much for handing down power and cutting bureaucracy then. This is, as we'll see, a common conclusion to draw from a lot of Coalition policies and should have the Lib Dems answering a few questions about what's *really* meant by localism when the brass tacks are brought out. That's before we get to the question of how you can impose Policy Exchange's view of 'the proper narrative of British history' on schools deliberately set up not to be under anyone's control.
3. The funding for it is badly thought through and, from some angles, based on wishful thinking bordering on deception
This goes back to Gove's stock answer when asked how he was going to fund this, that it would come from the BSF money:
The Tories have long had BSF marked down as one of those obvious examples of Labour waste that proved, in the end, rather difficult to find, This lead to the Channel 4 FactCheck people revealing that the original funding plans have had to be altered:
If you think about it, the line that there's pots of money lying around in the BSF fund we can funnel to Mr. Young and his crew is incompatible with the narrative of OMG No Money Left Must Cut Deficit Now which is the official government line at present, so this is hardly surprising. There's now a choice of ratcheting back the policy or finding the money elsewhere but since the silly policy itself can't be altered, because Gove is convinced he's right, the rest of the world has to fit in with his prejudices. This means pinching money from someone else's budget. In the light of the document seen by Channel 4, the aborted free school meals budget was considered but the current information is that it comes from an education IT fund, since apparently educating children in the use of information technology is less important than giving Toby Young a pile of public money to piss up the wall with his mates.
The most egregious example of 'wishful thinking', however, is this throwaway line:
This is another of those Tory bonding nervous tics, like assuming Ken Livingstone fiddled with traffic lights as part of a war on motorists or that the Dutch have solved the problem of traffic in towns by abolishing pavements or that there's a Socialist conspiracy involving the bins or to ban Christmas or introduce Sharia or indeed that publishing transport data in kilometres is a threat to the health of the nation. The need to believe these stories and the overriding obsession with putting a stop to whatever's causing them in spite of the evidence is a key marker of your modern Conservative, in fact, and Gove is possibly the finest example, as exposed a few months ago in a classic fisking by (Lib Dem) Alix Mortimer:
There'll be more on this, since every tabloid front page story I've seen recently (that isn't Ingerlund-fixated) has essentially been aimed at placating the kind of people who believed this nonsense that Something was Finally being Done about it, in an interfering and managerialist fashion. Of course, school policy is brought into this media strategy, the Mail on Saturday had its front page story some nonsense about competitive sports that was doubtless straight from Coulson's desk and the whole idea of 'taking schools out of local authority control' is another Conservative tic going back to perceived loony left councils/Frances Morrell indoctrinating kids with Maoist propaganda and the evils of Queen, Empire and competitive sport back in the day, as if the Labour Party hasn't rather changed since then.
Given that, it's not entirely surprising the 'free schools' policy is centred around London (remember the ILEA?) and driven by men of a certain vintage - those who became politically aware as teenagers around the time Thatcher came in. Gove was born in 1967, Toby Young in 1963, and that whole cohort (I'd throw in Andrew Gilligan, Boris Johnson and of course David Cameron, too) share a number of striking features not shared with, well, my generation who became politically aware when Thatcher had been in a few years. This, I think, may be significant in a few years time. There's also a common PR/media bond which neatly ensures that practically wall-to-wall glowing coverage is available at cost price, the cost being an agreeable dinner party in Notting Hill, one suspects.
4. It takes money away from existing schemes.
Again, an example locally - our nearest secondary school, Chiswick Community, is in urgent need of an update. As a school it has a lot of advantages; nice area, huge grounds (including those all-important playing fields, which we use for our twice-a-year primary schools football tournament), but also historic problems with pupil behaviour, being about half a dumping ground school (the other half getting excellent results, as it happens). They've done all the trendy things; team up as a trust with external bodies including St. Mary's University and Brentford FC, who, snark aside, do have a decent record of local engagement.
There is, addtionally, an existing BSF-funded plan for updating the school, prepared by the former Tory run administration at Hounslow:
They could usefully lose some of the jargon, mind, but is this honestly worse than the untried radical rhetoric from Gove and the ra-ra amateurism of Young? I'm not sure it is. Apart from any threat to BSF, CCS is also the type of school directly affected by switching the source of funding away from ICT investment, as :
It would therefore not be a total surprise if this school suddenly found the rug pulled from under its feet in the next few months, which explains why there's already a movement to counter this.
5. It gives a dangerous amount of power and influence to amateurs who dislike the idea of being publicly accountable when spending taxpayer's money
..the local authority veto was a "red line" during the negotiations, i.e., something the Tories weren't prepared to negotiate on. They know that if local authorities can block the creation of free schools, they will – and that even goes for Conservative-controlled councils
That itself is pretty amazing if true (and with Toby there's always that 'if', sadly) - did the Lib Dems have to sign up to a policy of *denying local councils any say about how publicly-funded educational establishments are set up in their area*? What 'planning regulations' is Gove planning to scrap if his mind is fixed along this path? Why does Young mention 'all schools are held properly accountable* as if it's a possible *problem*? Academies are, scandalously, outside the scope of Freedom of Information and I bet any money you like that the WLFS will fight tooth and nail for the same exclusion.
Still, one thing Toby now has is a site - apparently the former King Fahad Academy (a private Saudi-funded school, since relocated) building in Little Ealing Lane, which is a good long way from his Acton base (the whole policy is fixed around giving the middle class of Acton an alternative to Acton High School) and only a couple of hundred yards from the large (1100 pupil) Gunnersbury Boys School, a Catholic secondary I used to walk past on the way to work every morning when I first moved to London and the place was pretty congested then. Planning permission could be fun, then. In true Dunning-Kruger style, this was apparently located after parents had been out and about wandering around with A-Zs.
The way we’ve gone about the search is to circle an area on the A-Z and then divide it into several sections, with each member of the steering committee being assigned a particular zone. Then, armed with notebooks and cameras, we’ve got on our bikes.
Our task has been complicated by the fact that we don’t have a clear idea of what we were looking for...
Well, that's awfully reassuring. This method will doubtless prove wonderful when dealing with contractors, caterers, exam boards and other professional bodies. I'm sure they're *loving* the prospect of working with these clowns. Candy from a baby.
More information on Young's plans is often found on ActonW3.com forum, which incidentally shows how hyperlocal websites and forums are often well ahead of the game and thus the place to go. One thing thrown up by that is this paper [PDF] on the effect of the Swedish free schools that are brought up every time this policy is mentioned as if that's irrefutable proof of their righteousness. Would you believe it isn't all that it's made out to be?