Sebastian Payne

How can Labour respond to the rapid rise and popularity of free schools?

How can Labour respond to the rapid rise and popularity of free schools?
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As the new school year begins, the Department for Education has announced 93 new free schools are opening — more than double opened last September — creating 46,000 new places. With a total of 174 free schools now open, the evidence suggests Michael Gove's free school programme is taking off. This is how many have opened since the election:

But though free schools are flourishing, there's still a squeeze underway.  The Local Government Association today warns that half of the school districts in England will run out of places within two years due to 'unnecessary restrictions' on councils:

‘Its analysis of local authority data suggests about 1,000 of the 2,277 local school planning districts will be over capacity by 2015-16…the greatest pressure is focussed on about 99 districts, where 20% more pupils are predicted than places will be available.’

The Education Secretary denies he is the one to blame. On BBC Breakfast this morning, Gove explained how the government is working hard to rectify the problem, and placed the blame squarely on Labour for years of inactivity:

listen to ‘Michael Gove on BBC Breakfast’ on Audioboo

</p><p>(function() { var po = document.createElement("script"); po.type = "text/javascript"; po.async = true; po.src = "https://d15mj6e6qmt1na.cloudfront.net/assets/embed.js"; var s = document.getElementsByTagName("script")[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(po, s); })();</p><p></p><p>A spokesman for the Department of Education added to the LGA's accusations:</p><p><blockquote>'We are spending £5billion by 2015 on creating new school places — more than double the amount spent by the previous government in the same timeframe. We worked closely with councils on the reforms to school place funding so it is now more accurate than ever before - targeting money exactly where places are needed.'</blockquote></p><p>The simplest answer to areas where there is a shortage of places is for a group to open a new free school. That’s exactly what Gove is encouraging — choice and freedom in education. This is evidenced in that 75 per cent of the new mainstream free schools opening today are in areas with a particular need for new places.</p><p></p><p>The political question stands of how Labour can respond to this growth in free schools. The idea is obviously popular, but in June the shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said <a href="http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/jun/17/labour-free-schools-stephen-twigg" target="_blank">Labour would halt</a> the free schools programme if they came into power (while announcing his own funny version of the schools to keep his colleagues happy). But the rise of free schools announced today underlines the struggle that Twigg would have if Labour came to power in 2015: it's fine to oppose a policy that is unpopular, but Gove would leave Labour with an awkward but popular legacy.