Fraser Nelson

Pure Balls

Pure Balls
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Ed Balls isn’t quite sure how to attack the Tory 'Swedish schools' policy. But a story in today's Observer about a Tory councillor sounding off about it gives him a chance to try. The words issued are from Jim Knight, but I put them below and by thoughts interspersed.

"Once they know the truth about David Cameron’s risky and divisive plan to import the Swedish schools..."

Risky? The Tories would allow charities, church groups etc to set up schools if they have enough support from parents. But Balls* is right to see community-driven initiatives as a risk - a risk to the bureaucracies serving British pupils and taxpayers so badly.

And "divisive"? Ahh, this is socialist-talk for "choice". Remember, Brown also said that a leadership election would be "divisive". Yes, when poor people have the same choice as the rich do now schools will have to compete for their custom. I suspect many sink schools aren't looking forward to it. But what Balls sees as divisive the parents in council schemes will see as liberation.

Imported? The new schools will reflect the priorities of their communities. They will stop importing the ideas of politicians in Whitehall.

“The truth is that this free market education experiment could only be paid for by billions of cuts to existing school budgets and billions of cuts to our school rebuilding programme across the country."

It’s a funny kind of "free market experiment" that doesn't allow the new independent schools to make a profit (as the Swedes do). A missed opportunity, in my view, which will retard the rollout.

And cuts to the schools budget? Nonsense. A proportion of money will be reallocated from bureaucratic initiatives to support the new community-driven schools - a policy that transfers resources from the priorities of ministers to the priority of parents. But it is all education money.

"And instead of stepping in to tackle under-performance - as we are doing through National Challenge and our accelerated academies programme - the Tory plan would just let under-performing schools wither and let the market decide."

Perhaps the most important error. The rollout in school choice, from Chile to Milwaukee, shows that underperforming schools smarten up their act sharpish when parents are no longer trapped. Schools respond to parent power more quickly and efficiently than they ever would to a five-year plan from the likes of Balls. There comes a tipping point where school choice galvanises the whole system, the state-run schools start answering to parents rather than LEAs. And that's when progress starts.

"The Tories want an education lottery which will benefit only the few."

This "many v few" argument is Brown-Balls’ favourite cliché. But for the reasons outlined above, and as a decade of experience in Sweden shows, it benefits all but admittedly not to an equal amount. The rich, who choose state schools via house price, won't notice much improvement. For those too poor to move, the Tory scheme will be transformative. And lottery? Nope, as the Tory plan would pay more to schhols opening in deprived areas these areas would benefit first. To get school choice, council estate parents have only two hopes: win the lottery, or vote Tory.

“Now that Tory unease about this policy has spilled out into the public, David Cameron and Michael Gove should think again.”

Unease my foot. The LEA bureaucracies, of whatever political hue, will not like this as it ends their monopoly control which has done so much harm to education in this country. Its time to make parents the education tsars.

I suspect when this scheme takes off, it will be more popular in our education-obsessed country than in Sweden. There, the social democrats ended up backing the scheme they opposed seeing how much it helped the poor, and how much teachers relished being released from ministerial diktat. If Gove does this properly, it will sound the long-overdue death knell for sink schools. And it will Labour who will be thinking again.

* I say Balls rather than Labour as many Labour MPs and peers (Adonis, Milburn, Field, Kelly, Hutton, Purnell) understand the choice agenda and made much progress towards achieving it. Their complaint is that the Tories stole the Blair "trust school" proposal shot down in parliament, and they have a point. How dismayed they must be to see the Balls-Brown state control doctrine prevail.

Written byFraser Nelson

Fraser Nelson is the editor of The Spectator. He is also a columnist with The Daily Telegraph, a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies.

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