A new Labour position on free schools

October 13, 2013

Tristram Hunt has made a bold start to his career as Shadow Education Secretary.  In an interview with the Daily Mail, and a follow up TV interview on Andrew Marr, he was explicit in setting out the Labour position on free schools.

“What I am saying is if you want to do that when we are in government we will be on your side. There has been this perception that we would not be, and I want people to be absolutely clear that we are. I am putting rocket boosters on getting behind parents and social entrepreneurs.”

So what to make of this? In truth, the actual policy position is not much changed from that which Stephen Twigg set out at the RSA in June – the new “parent led academies” talked about by Hunt over the weekend are Twigg’s innovation, and he also made clear they would be allowed to be set up in ‘areas of need’. But Hunt’s tone is considerably more enthusiastic – and leading off on this issue is hugely symbolic.

Much then to be welcomed, and Hunt deserves the praise he is receiving from reformers from all sides. But the key to this policy making an impact in practice will be how the detail develops. Three things to watch out for:

1. “Areas of need”. This was the headline phrase dominating social media discussion on Sunday, and how this is defined will be crucial. Does this simply refer to new parent academies being allowed to set up in areas where there is a need for more places? Or would they be allowed where there are existing places, but parents don’t want to take them up? Current Government policy is clearly the latter, but many in Labour who advocate the continuation of free schools would strongly push for the former. That would be a mistake – in areas where current standards are too low, or where parents aren’t happy with current provision, new free schools / parent academies could and should be a welcome spur of innovation and competition. Otherwise, as one Labour blogger wryly observed, the message to parents in an area with poor schools is “if you want a new academy, breed more”.

2. Planning issues. This is perhaps the biggest issue affecting the number of new free schools so far. The Government has made changes to the planning framework to ease the passage of new schools, including: allowing free  schools to open in almost any building for a year without planning permission, having extra time to secure planning permission to remain in their buildings after that first year, and a more streamlined approval process. Any changes to the maze of planning laws- or new ‘guidance’ – could in practice stymie any new approvals. Recent media coverage on this is not altogether promising.

3. Competitions and the presumption in favour of free schools. At the moment, there is a “presumption in favour” of an academy or free school where an LA identifies a need for a new school. If no proposal or no suitable proposal is found, then the LA can run a competition for a new school (open to foundation schools, Voluntary Controlled schools, and Voluntary Aided schools) – but the LA is specifically prohibited from proposing a new community school in this competition. Only if no successful schools can be identified by this competition can a new community school be set up – in other words, as a third choice at best. Although this sounds technical, it is absolutely crucial in breaking the veto of recalcitrant LAs against new providers in their area that are not under LA control. Should this presumption be weakened, new free schools could be under threat -particularly if combined with a definition of “need” that is solely place based. For in this instance, a LA could accept – of course, Minister! – a need for a new parent-led academy in theory. Except – fortunately Minister! – there are already plans for a new school as part of the LA family already underway. So no need for one of those new parent led academies here after all….

The direction that Hunt has started is hugely encouraging but the small print will be important over the next few months.

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