Garlands from all quarters for Michael Gove’s performance at the Leveson Inquiry this afternoon (well, not quite all quarters) — but the most significant thing that the Education Secretary said wasn’t actually related to the media, but to his ministerial brief. When asked about the prospect of profit-making free schools, he replied that they ‘could’ happen ‘when we come to that bridge’. It’s probably the clearest statement that Gove has made, on record, to demonstrate that he’s not averse to introducing the sort of profit arrangements that could give his agenda an almighty boost.
The question is: when will he get to that bridge, then? My understanding is that it’s unlikely to be during this Parliament — as Nick Clegg is dead-set against the idea of profit-making free schools, and it’s one of those things that has been smothered by the demands of coalition. But perhaps they might be included in the next Tory manifesto, who knows? I don’t think we should read a timetable into Gove’s words today. The point is that profit isn’t poison in his eyes.
Indeed, it’s worth noting that there is some profit sluicing around the system already. In September, a free school will open in Suffolk run by the profit-making Swedish group International English Schools. The way this works is that the school trust effectively outsources the management of the school to a company, much as they might outsource the catering, who then make money from the deal. And, as it happens, this has been allowable since the New Labour years — although IES Breckland will be the first school to take advantage of it for some time.
Anyway, given the shortage of school places, proper profit-making — above and beyond the IES Breckland model — is becoming a necessity, not a luxury. But don’t expect it any time soon.