Sebastian Payne

The Free Schools revolution marches on — if Cameron holds his nerve

David Cameron has vowed he will ‘not waver’ in his commitment to free schools and has announced another 500 will open over the next five years — creating 270,000 new school places by 2020. Eighteen new projects have been given the go-ahead today, adding to the existing 252 free schools and the 52 new schools opening this week. As the chart above shows, the government’s target is ambitious. To see the commitment through, two waves of new free schools will be announced every year in March and September.

The Prime Minister said the announcement shows that the government is focused on ‘delivering an excellent education and giving parents across the country real choice for their children’. Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, also said the new schools would have a ripple effect across the whole system:

‘We know that free schools don’t just give parents greater choice, they also force existing schools to up their game. Today’s news sends a clear message that we are committed to extending this unprecedented level of choice to more parents than ever before.’

But the naysayers against free schools are louder than ever. Just one of the Labour leadership candidates has a good thing to say about them. Jeremy Corbyn has said he wants to ‘rethink’ the role of ‘unaccountable’ free schools. Andy Burnham frequently talks up comprehensive education and has promised to give local authorities the power to decide who attends free schools — essentially turning them into comprehensives. Yvette Cooper thinks they are bad use of public money, expensive and not delivering. While she wouldn’t be looking to open any more, nor would Cooper close any down.

Only Liz Kendall has defended free schools, although she has not gone as far for calling for more of them. At the beginning of the leadership contest, she argued Labour should take a pragmatic approach:

‘I’m not going to waste time obsessing about school structures. If a school is providing a great education – whether it’s a local authority, academy or free school – we will back it. Full stop.’

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Yet again, this is a Blair-esque policy — the former PM described free schools as ‘a great idea’ —that few in the party are willing to defend. While Labour obsess about everyone’s inner poet and artist, it is the Tories who are getting on with offering parents more choice and striving to improve standards. Reformers such as Andrew Adonis must be despairing that it’s the Conservatives who are now the real education reformers. In the past, Cameron’s critics have feared that he wasn’t particularly passionate about free schools, but today’s announcement proves them wrong and personally commits him as a champion for the expansion programme.

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