School Enterprise Zones would turbo-charge Free School Programme

September 3, 2012

Many children starting school this week will have been denied a place at all the good schools within reach of their homes. Others will have had no realistic choice at all, just a poor-quality local school. As a parent of young children it’s a prospect I dread.

However, this is exactly the experience of more than one in five parents, according to the first findings emerging from new research on public services, which the Policy Exchange think tank is releasing today. The worst affected parents live in cities, where almost a third say they have no option of a good school place.

I believe that lack of school choice is one of the most urgent problems in the public services at the present time. It’s why I also believe that the government’s free schools programme, which allows community groups to start new schools in their areas, is an absolutely essential reform. This programme is allowing ambitious teachers to introduce new ways of doing things: longer school days, better discipline, new technology and higher aspirations.

Because of a recent spike in the birth rate there will be a shortfall of 200,000 primary school places by 2015. While there are unfilled places in many schools, they are not in the areas where the greatest demand looms, including London, the West Midlands and the southwest. Problems are most acute in poor urban areas where primary schools are already oversubscribed.

What spare school places there are tend to be concentrated in the worst schools: half of the surplus places are in the worst performing quarter of schools. Unless something is done, the primary schools crisis will see more and more children being shunted into their parents’ fourth or fifth choice school.

Will enough free schools be able to open fast enough to plug the shortfall of places in good schools? There are two big things holding the programme back: money and hostile local bureaucrats.

With the government already running the biggest deficit since the second world war, it is unable to splash out lots more cash. While the private sector has money and would like to invest in the state school system, this isn’t allowed at present. The rules require free schools to be run by charitable trusts: the government has ruled out for-profit provision, which prevents new capital investment coming into the system.

The second big obstacle is the town hall planners. There have been good initial attempts made to reform burdensome planning rules, including a presumption in favour of developing free schools. But this has not been enough to stop the opponents of free schools from slowing down, complicating and ultimately blocking them. Endless excuses are dreamt up by the political opponents of school choice.

My proposal to overcome these problems is inspired by the economic “enterprise zones” model, used around the world to create new jobs and businesses in deprived urban areas, where they are most needed, by removing the financial and regulatory burdens. Margaret Thatcher introduced such zones in Britain. The best was the London Docklands: once a slum, it is now an international financial powerbase.

“School enterprise zones” would be similarly designated in poor urban areas and other parts of the country with too few good school places. In these clearly defined areas all restrictions would be removed on who can run schools, so that social enterprises and for-profit companies could be approved. Moreover, the ability by councillors to use the planning system to create artificial obstacles would be stripped back.

To smooth the potential controversy around the involvement of for-profit firms, simple safeguards could be put in place. Any private provider could be required to reinvest 50% of any profits in the school, for instance. There could be rules on financial transparency and parents and staff could have the right to be involved in decision making. In short, we could introduce whatever controls were needed to get this off the ground.

The important thing is that such an initiative would, at a stroke, bring new investment into the schools system, while also allowing local parents to trump both self-interested councillors and those militants from the teachers’ unions who routinely assist councils in opposing the new schools that parents want and need.

School enterprise zones would be a bold move. Ideologues and vested interests would resist them with all their energy and money. But unless we act, there will be children in our cities who are going to have their lives blighted by a second-rate education. We can’t let them down.

This article originally appeared on The Sunday Times’s website (£)

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