For those who assumed that the removal of Michael Gove as Education Secretary marked the end of the Conservatives’ scholastic reforms, this month may hold a surprise. More free schools are coming, The Spectator understands: at least 50 of them. Gove’s successor, Nicky Morgan, is due to announce the first of three waves this year. If the Tories win the election, Britain might have 150 more free schools by the end of the year. That means thousands more pupils enjoying independent education within the state system.
This — together with the 4,400 academies that have already opted out of local government control — represents the greatest challenge yet to the monolith of state education. For decades, schools have been run less in the interests of children than those of the teaching unions and local government barons. Michael Gove’s reforms have been resisted because he was trying to switch power from bureaucrats to parents — and, indeed, children. The aim was nothing short of a schools revolution.
The Tories’ coalition partners have proved themselves firmly on the side of the entrenched interests and hostile to change. The Liberal Democrats this week fired what will surely turn out to be one of the silliest missiles of the long election campaign: a 13-page dossier called the ‘Gove Files’, chirping about what they regard as their achievements in thwarting the former education secretary over free schools, rigorous exams and other things. It is a compendium of negativity which exposes the embarrassing fact that the Lib Dems have become saboteurs rather than partners in government.
The Lib Dems are able to claim credit for stopping Gove only thanks to David Cameron’s regrettable decision, during the coalition negotiations in 2010, to allow the junior party the right of veto over important policies it did not like. It is a power which the Prime Minister has only just summoned the courage to overcome — just in time for voters to appreciate that, when it comes to schools, only the Conservatives can claim to be the liberal party. He has backed Ms Morgan, who is to be congratulated for carrying on the fight on behalf of pupils. As is the schools minister, Lord Nash, a genuine expert on the subject who has proved a hardy champion of free schools.
Michael Gove is often denounced as an ideologue, yet free schools represent the very antithesis of ideology in government. They attack the concept of ministers and civil servants sitting in Whitehall directing every detail of how children are taught. They create freedom and allow different approaches to flourish or fail. Gove’s agenda was open-minded: he wanted diversity within the state sector: council schools, academies and free schools all serving their communities in different ways.
Remarkably few free schools have failed. Those who said they would end up run by crazed extremists and fruitcakes have been proved wrong. A free school normally arrives in a district already served by a local state school. To attract pupils, the free school must offer something which parents find more appealing than the alternative.
Labour and the Lib Dems want to undermine free schools by allowing them only in areas where insufficient state school places exist. If there are spare places in bad schools, they say, these should be filled — parental freedom subordinated to bureaucratic convenience. The contempt for parental choice is summed up by one Liberal Democrat who asserted: ‘Parents don’t want choice; they just want their local school to be good.’
But who gets to decide what makes a school good? We need more places in the education system because the population is expanding. For all its talk about ‘education, education, education’, the last Labour government closed, on average, 126 schools a year. Its ministers refused to recognise that the expansion of the EU would increase immigration and lead to greater demand (one in every four children starting school this year will have an immigrant mother; in London it is one in two).
The Conservatives have never had reason to doubt that their free schools would prove successful. But last year David Cameron appeared to wobble. His decision to ditch Michael Gove sent a terrible message to the government’s critics: make enough noise, spread enough disinformation on policy and we will throw in the towel.
In spite of being a former education spokesman, David Cameron has gone quiet on schools during his time as Prime Minister. Perhaps he believes that his Etonian background is an impediment to winning the trust of the public on state schools. But he should not be embarrassed by his first-rate education. What matters is that he now endeavours to offer all parents a better choice — something the hardly less privileged Tristram Hunt (son of a peer, educated at University College School and Trinity College, Cambridge) seeks to deny.
Freedom and choice over take-it-or-leave-it state provision helped Mrs Thatcher win three elections. Championing home-ownership led to people abandoning council housing as fast as they abandoned the Labour party.
In free schools, the Conservatives have a policy which has the potential to do the same for David Cameron. During the coming election campaign, the party should have the courage to emphasise their achievements in education.