As someone trying to set up a free school, it’s a criticism I hear over and over again: he just wants to secure a free private education for his children at the taxpayer’s expense. Ed Balls has said it, the general secretary of the NUT has said it, Fiona Millar has said it. And it’s always delivered with the same knowing smirk, as if they’ve caught me out. Bad luck, Toby. The gig is up. Time to go home.
They’re quite right, of course. And it is a killer blow — against themselves. For if I’ve worked out a way of providing my own children with the equivalent of a private school education for no more than it costs the taxpayer to educate a child at a bog-standard comprehensive then I should be made the Secretary of State for Education tomorrow.
Let’s unpack this a little bit. It’s a safe assumption that free schools will receive roughly the same amount of money per pupil as maintained schools. The Department for Education has yet to issue any clear guidance on the GAG (General Annual Grant) that free schools will receive — and won’t until after next week’s comprehensive spending review — but we know that it will be in line with the per capita funding allocated to the maintained schools in whatever local authority each free school happens to be in.
So the per capita budget available to my school will be no higher than that of the neighbouring state schools. Will this be sufficient to provide children with the equivalent of a private school education? I’d hesitate to make that claim since, according to the OECD, England’s independent schools are the best in the world. The same cannot be said of our education sector as a whole.
In the OECD’s international league tables, English schoolchild-ren are 24th in the world in mathematics, 17th in reading and 14th in science. If we take all three measures collectively, England’s schoolchildren rank, on average, 18th in the world. And it’s worth bearing in mind that the OECD’s test subjects include children at independent schools. If you exclude them, England’s ranking would be lower.
No such caution inhibits my opponents. They are quite certain, apparently, that I can take the same amount of money the state spends on an education ranked, at best, 18th in the world and use it to provide my own children with an education ranked number one in the world. Such magical powers! And far from seeing this as a reason to support me, they see it as a reason to stop me!
The objection sounds completely absurd when you deconstruct it like that but, incredibly, that is the reason why Ed Balls, the NUT and Fiona Millar are opposed to free schools. They’re worried that groups of parents and teachers might do a better job of spending the taxpayers’ money than the state. Balls said as much when I debated him on Newsnight — a soundbite that David Cameron used in his conference speech. ‘The danger is that there will be winners in this policy,’ he said. The same argument was used by John Prescott in 2005: ‘If you set up a school and it becomes a good school, the great danger is that everyone wants to go there.’
It sounds absolutely bonkers, but that in a nutshell is why the left objects to free schools. People like Balls and Prescott believe that if you allow anyone to set up a truly excellent state school, the neighbouring schools will suffer because more parents will want to send their children to the new school.
According to their socialist ideology, mediocrity for all is preferable to excellence for some. The idea that competition and innovation might actually drive up standards across the sector is absolute anathema to them. Tractor production must remain in the hands of the state even if it means the tractors don’t work properly.
I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again. The left’s insistence on maintaining parity within the state education sector has had the unintended consequence of increasing the disparity between the state and the independent sector and, as a result, children whose parents cannot afford a private education find it more and more difficult to compete with those who can. This is one of the great ironies of our postwar history: in the name of equality, the left has inadvertently kept the English class system alive. And, as I’m discovering, they will fight tooth and nail against anyone trying to dismantle it.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 16, 2010