The Spectator recently ran a letter from Lord Adonis saying the Swedish schools revolution which I said David Cameron would bring to Britain was in fact being delivered under Labour. Huh, I thought, keep telling yourself that - if it makes this whole Brown thing better for you. But today I picked up my local newspaper to find a striking splash: two City Academies run by Kunskapsskolan, the Swedish company I interviewed for my cover piece, are coming to my borough.
Things move quickly. Just last month Per Ledin, the head of Kunskapsskolan, was in his office asking me: “City Academies? What kind of a beast are those?” Now he’s saying “I’ll take two, please”. Under the new Brown system, the “sponsor” doesn’t have to stump up the £2m cash so it’s an easily-arranged, basic management contract. Weirdly, Labour doesn’t mind companies making a profit from managing schools – just as long as someone else is making a loss from owning them. Kunskapsskolan is putting its toe in the market.
So if Cameron ever gets around to selling what I regard as the best policy he has (he remains unconvinced there is much political capital in it), then Labour has a ready response. Swedish schools, mate? Catch up. We’re already there. It wouldn’t surprise me if as Cameron umms and aahs, Labour starts to use this schools policy as an election weapon.
Of course, the Tory policy remains superior. There is no new school opening in my area, just an old one under the old management. The City Academy scheme does little to open up the supply side and give parents choice – without it there will be no market, and today’s scandalous system where schools choose pupils rather than vice versa will continue. There are only something like 82 Academies out of 3,500 secondaries: I’ll be one of the lucky parents.
Also, millions are being spent on these new schools as per the Brown-Balls cash fixation. They remain wedded to the 1970s Grange Hill model of education, where schools are standalone buildings of about 1,000 pupils, for administrative convenience. The Swedish model is a true social market system, which allocates cash according to the priorities of parents. So its new schools usually occupy office buildings (and on average have fewer than 200 pupils). Parents don’t care how grand the building is, and would rather the money was spent on teachers and education. In this way, new schools can open in a jiffy. It will take years for the rebuilding of the two City Academies outlined in my newspaper.
, Absolute Return for Kids (ARK)
and other education providers are now ideally positioned to take advantage of the new Tory system that would allow them to expand rapidly. But as the new Tory system remains pretty much a secret shared by Spectator readers and a few Westminster villagers, it will be quite easy for Brown to claim he is the real reformer.
Brown now has in No10 people like Jennifer Moses, an evangelist for supply-side education reform and an ARK trustee. She had clashed previously with Balls over the speed at which City Academies should be rolled out. Now she’s in the No10 Policy Unit and thus far better-able to make her case.
Like many parents, I spend an absurd amount of time thinking about how my son will be educated. My prospects have today become brighter, thanks to Labour placing one of my local schools in the hands of a respected international education provider. Until now, I have been unable to name anything this government has done for me. Now, I can. It would be churlish of me to deny it. On the way out of interviewing Per Ludin I joked with him “please come open a school in Richmond.” He has: under Labour.
At a time when party loyalties have never been weaker, the election will come down to a basic question of retail politics: “what will Party X do for me.” I would say to Cameron that schools policy is an answer. If he plants the seed in the head of people now they will think “Under a Tory government, my local church will open a new primary” or some such. He could talk to schools groups and say “Here’s the Dutch education provider, it would open three schools in York.” Parents would have a hard reason to vote Tory. Yet as I say in my News of the World column today, radical ideas take at least two years to gestate. They need to be sold, with force and with focus. Adonis has plenty of both. As Brown becomes more Blairite
, his instinct for political survival may tell him that Adonis’ proposal will win votes. With a new, improved machine in No10
, Brown may yet claim the “Swedish schools” agenda for himself.