Fraser Nelson

The Tories must sell their most radical policy: the Gove schools plan

The Tories must sell their most radical policy: the Gove schools plan
Text settings

The Spectator’s endorsement of David Cameron started with his ‘free schools’ policy – and we could have ended there. We said that this is, in itself, enough reason to vote Conservative. This week’s Economist has produced one of the best explanations of this policy, and its potential.  This is important because this election campaign shows that, while the public are indeed minded to oust Gordon Brown, they’re not terribly excited by the Tory offering. The Gove schools plan is something which, if properly expressed, cannot fail to capture the imagination.

In my limited experience of persuading people why they should vote, I find the schools policy always works. The Tories, I say, would pay for a new breed of boutique schools which would compete with each other to educate your child. It’s not a theory, it’s been done in Sweden. No more catchment area games. No more 10-year saving plans for private school. Community groups – churches, for example – won’t need the permission of a local authority to open a primary. All you need is find a building, and enough parental support. The power of this policy lies in its simplicity.

I have never worked out why the Tories did not sell this policy harder. It’s not very complex. The policy cannot be summarised as "set up your own school" – the cul-de-sac where William Hague ended up on the Today programme earlier. As John Humphrys rightly told him, people don’t have the time, inclination or expertise to do so. The Tory plan means that school providers (GEMS, Knowledge Schools, Cognita, International English Schools) would beat a path to your door. And yes, community groups would do it to (as the New Schools Network shows). Mr Hague didn’t quite get around to making that point: a missed opportunity.

For three years, we at Coffee House have been encouraging that the Tory leadership to  find a way of conveying the radical nature of the schools policy. We lost the argument. As James Forsyth says in his must-read cover story this week (subscribers, click here), Mr Cameron has not mentioned it during the television debates even when talking about education.

So The Economist’s coverage is an important advance in doing what the Tory leadership is (for whatever reason) reluctant to do: communicating the best single reason to vote Conservative. After all, those who do want to move towards a more open society – with greater social mobility - can do more than moan about the Tories. This is not like a football game, where frustrated supporters shout "give me your shirt!" Anyone can get on the field, and start to run with the ball. Many argue that the intellectual climate needs to change before government can change - and politicians cannot, by themselves, change the intellectual climate. The Thatcher revolution was made possible by a huge amount of covering fire support – from journals, think-tanks, intellectuals who switched from left to right like Kingsley Amis and Paul Johnson. This is a battle of ideas, and pieces like this Economist article are significant contributions in that battle for the open society. It’s not a battle which those who are in favour of an open society can expect the Tories to fight for us. It won’t do to sit back, do nothing, and shout at the Cameroons when they stumble.

Even if you do believe there has been a failure of communication, this must not be confused with a failure of policy. Michael Gove has honed the ‘free schools’ policy, it would be in the first Queen’s Speech, it does promise to transform the educational prospects for kids whose parents cannot afford to move into a posh area. It remains, in my view, a reason not just to vote Conservative but to do so with enthusiasm. With a Lib-Lab PR stitch-up now on the horizon, the stakes are even higher now. Labour would never agree to a ‘free schools’ policy: it is in the pay of powerful unions and local education authority barons who do not want to face competition. Only a Tory-led government can deliver this. For those who do want school liberalisation, and the liberalisation of the state that would inevitably follow, this might be your last chance to vote for it.

djw2009, you seem to be critiquing the Gove plan from a Conservative perspective, which baffles me. Gove's policy encourages a new breed of schools: in Sweden, the free schools went from 0 percent to 14 percent fairly quickly. It's not about allowing schools to opt out (although it also would do that). You then go on to list what you don't like about secondary education: do you really think this can be changed by state edict? Put anyone you want in the Department for Education (as it would be again under Gove) and they'd soon find they don't control English schooling. It's a chimera. Power rests with local authorities, who love to defy central government. And then with the unions. For as long as schools are under bureaucratic control, they will adopt the priorities of a bureaucrats and central planners. Independent schools respond only to the wishes of parents. As Sweden found, there comes a tipping point: when independent schools get to about 8 percent of the total, and state schools are losing pupils (and, ergo, money) to the new breed, then the power shifts. Schools suddenly respond to what parents want, which brings in the virtues you speak about (discipline, grammar etc). The idea that you can achieve this change by having a Dear Leader running the DoE is a joke - as successive Tory education secretaries found out. As Ken Baker concluded, letting them go independent (he wanted direct grant) is the surest way to achieve improvement. And even he was defied in direct grant experiment by Tory councils (yes, Tory) because councils hate facing competition in schooling.