Back in the first flush of the Coalition, when men were men, Toby Young was merely an annoying bald prat off the telly and a few people still thought Michael Gove was a serious politician, we pointed out that the biggest issue facing the proposed Latin-and-propaganda Academies, madrassas, etc. was sourcing the actual premises. Toby's method quickly ran into problems caused by basic lack of common sense amongst its devotees:
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.
The answer of course being 'a building currently occupied by special needs kids followed by a building currently housing groups helping asylum seekers'.
Now, doing Toby's common sense for him, a few reasonable starting axioms would be useful here:
- the UK is a crowded island
- ...where schools are traditionally placed in the crowded areas
- ...with 30 years of selling off publicly owned land under it's belt
- ...that has just undergone a property boom that hasn't quite unwound to the stage where you can pick up a suitable site within reach of your nice middle class catchment area for peanuts
Quite how it escaped Clever Mike (and his allegedly even more brainy friend Rachel 'New Schools Network' Wolf, who could usefully have asked her dad for some of his actual, you know, wisdom on this) that this means we're not lavishly equipped with sites suitable to build schools on is hard to say. No, hang on, it's not hard to say at all. The New Statesman applies the stiletto:
The groups trying to set up free schools are for the most part composed of parents or teachers. These don't generally have a few million quid lying about, with which to build a new school. This, the wonks have always said, didn't really matter. There was no reason new schools needed to own a building: renting one was quite sufficient. And where there were empty classrooms in existing schools, well, why not let new schools borrow them, and pay for the privilege?
The problem is, neither of those things actually seems to work.
This is presumably the real reason Young, in a complete reversal of the intention to free parents from local authorities, was eventually forced under the wing of Hammersmith & Fulham Council (one of whose leading lights he'd apparently sent an adoring letter to back in the bracing 80s FCS days). Another obvious point which I hadn't grasped is that no right-minded financial institution is going to lend money on this sort of proposition, particularly if, as seemed to be implied in the early days, Free Schools would magically appear to cover temporary bubbles in the birth rate, then equally magically disappear. Banks don't tend to like businesses that operate that sort of model, doubly so given the apparent political reluctance to allow any whiff of profiteering from the enterprise*
Toby, of course, eventually found his premises. Parental groups who don't have the media profile, bracing right wing views or the country's nastiest council ready to bail them out might find his example hard to follow, which is presumably why the number of free schools keeps shrinking, hopefully until it disappears up some arsehole or other. God knows there's enough choice. Jon Elledge seems to think that academy chains will end up taking advantage, but that leads to another question - what does the Free School model give them that the normal (and very heavily pushed and actually happening on a largish scale) conversion programme doesn't? Apart from FoI-free status, possibly.
* Despite what SABRE (the Brandon Free School project) said about education providers looking for '5-8% profit eventually'.