When Michael Gove first proposed ‘free schools’ four years ago, he could have been written off as another Tory daydreamer. The idea of creating an education market, with independent state schools competing for pupils, was considered by Keith Joseph in 1980, then dropped when the depth of his department’s hostility became clear. English schooling was controlled by bureaucrats and unions, and sporadic ministerial attempts to change that always ended in failure. So Gove’s friends and enemies concluded that, as Education Secretary, his radical reforms were doomed.
How wrong they were. This month 24 new ‘free schools’ will open, admitting about 10,000 pupils. Behind each school is a group of teachers acting on parental demand for something better. Gove is due to visit Woodpecker Hall, set up by Patricia Sowter, a successful headteacher in Enfield, east London. Frustrated at having to turn so many parents away from her old school, Ms Salter has set up a new one free from council control. She is the first of what Gove hopes will be a new breed of British education entrepreneurs.
Also this month, more than 1,000 Academies will open their doors — five times the number that existed last year. These too are independent schools operating in the state sector, which have used powers in Gove’s Academies Act to break free from their local councils. Last week one of the earliest groups of Acadamies, those run by Harris, released its latest GCSE results and for comparison, each school’s last results under town hall control. On average, the proportion of pupils with five or more good GCSEs had trebled. The Academy programme, set up by Labour and expanded by Gove, is becoming the most rapidly vindicated social policy in modern history.
All this would have been something to celebrate, had Britain’s birth rate remained in mild decline. But as Gove was hatching his policy, the millions who settled in Britain during the boom years were starting families. The national birth rate has soared, especially in London, where half of all children are now born to immigrant mothers. At first, this just meant crammed playgrounds. Now, schools face the greatest surge in demand for primary school places for a generation.
Across the country, school shortages are being counted. Bristol has said it needs an extra 479 primary school places, and Leeds 225. What the statistics do not show is what happens to mothers who have been told there might not be a decent primary school place for their children. They develop an almost homicidal rage. Some 140,000 children will soon be denied their first choice of school. This figure is set to multiply, and may well create a lethal Mums’ Army who will keep their wrath warm for election night.
Under such pressure, Gove’s proposals suddenly look far less radical. It is an extraordinary feat to open 24 new schools in the space of 18 months; under the old system it would have taken five years. But to keep pace with the rise in pupil numbers, Gove would need to open 320 schools this year — and 420 next year. In an interview with The Spectator three years ago, Gove said he wanted to promise English parents that ‘in your neighbourhood, there will be a new school going out of its way to persuade you to send your children there’. This now seems a distant dream. Competition requires schools with a shortage of pupils, hungry for more. The more likely picture now is that the schools will be deluged as soon as they open, shepherding children into bulging classrooms of 30 and more.
Why so few new schools? Part of the answer is quality control. Gove originally envisaged taking a Swedish laissez-faire approach, granting a licence to almost any school which applies and leaving the market to judge if it was good enough. But he was put off by the experience of the Charter Schools in the US, where bad new schools came to threaten the whole project. So, of the 280 applications to open an English free school next year, 160 have been rejected and the rest asked to interview. Perhaps as few as 80 will be approved.
Such an approval process requires staff, and the Department for Education seems to need an awful lot of them. It took an extraordinary 200 civil servants to approve two dozen new schools, so the odds of approving hundreds each year look slim. Another bottleneck is the struggle to find a site for the new schools. Gove has written to his fellow Cabinet members, asking them to suggest government buildings that could be used. But new school groups still need planning permission from an often-hostile local authority.
Yet Sweden, the lodestar for the whole project, started off with a few dozen schools and ended up with several hundred. The new schools quickly organised themselves into chains and set up wherever demand was strongest. But they did so because most were companies, operating for a profit. This idea, taboo only two years ago, has become a live argument inside the Conservative high command. Gove is reluctant, believing he is fighting on enough fronts without being accused of privatising schools. New schools face many obstacles, he says, most of them bureaucratic. The profit motive would not change that.
But increasingly, some of those around David Cameron believe that the only way Gove can accelerate his plan is to bring in profit-seeking chains like International English Schools and Cognita. And if it creates a political stink, so be it. The need for new schools is too great — and the prospect of the angry Mums’ Army at the ballot box too fearsome. But Nick Clegg, a great supporter of schools reform so far, has been given the power of veto — and has made clear he will use it to stop profit-making schools. This is where the argument may end, for now.
Labour seems to have nothing to contribute. Ed Miliband has disowned the Blarite Academy reforms which are now flowering so spectacularly. His party instead looks on uncomprehendingly as teachers seize power from town halls and get to work. For David Cameron, the prize is not just the rejuvenation of English state schools. It is being able to claim that the Conservatives are now the natural party of education.