Tuesday 21 May 2013

Free Schools: this is 'what's not to like' Boris

Boris Johnson, writing in today's London Evening Standard, attempts to portray opposition to Free Schools as some kind of 'left-wing conspiracy'. No, it's Mayor Johnson and his Government colleagues who are the ones putting ideology before needs. They are the ones insisting that the critical lack of school places in London has to be addressed through a patchwork of privatised Free Schools instead of through urgent investment in well-constructed and democratically-planned Local Authority community schools.

The Mayor, betraying the same lack of understanding of Victorian history as his Education Secretary shows over 'payment-by-results', claims that the Tories' plans to meet the estimated shortfall of 118,000 pupil places in London through 'Free Schools' compares to the school-building program in the capital at the end of the late nineteenth-century. 

Yes, the late-Victorian era saw major investment in school buildings, and other public services, not least the School Board buildings that still stand the test of time today. However, their politicians understood the benefit of investment in infrastructure and schools. Under pressure from a movement that first saw Labour and Socialist candidates winning election victories to School Boards, they also recognised the benefit of elected Local Authorities being able to control and plan those resources. 

Gove's 'Free Schools' come from a very different tradition. They stem from the neo-liberal politics of the end of the twentieth-century, when public services became just another source of rich-pickings for big business. These short-sighted bourgeois, represented sadly by both Tory and New Labour politicians, were driven just by a desire to make a quick return. Instead of reinvesting profits in production and services, they helped to create the speculative bubble whose implosion has led to the present continuing economic crisis.

In Sweden, one of the first countries to experiment with the 'Free School model', it has been shown to have had a detrimental effect on education and equality. [ See for example: http://electmartin1.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/sweden-market-leads-to-poorer-education.html ].

Johnson asks in the Standard "what is not to like? " about Free Schools. For starters, as in Sweden, they are schools where their owners will be allowed to declare a profit, so that education businesses can cut costs to make money out of children's education.  Instead of democratically-controlled planning of school places, Free Schools will create a chaotic and inefficient free-for-all of private providers. Instead of Government having to properly invest in the schools that our children deserve, Free Schools will also be allowed to open in empty offices and other inappropriate provision. If Boris Johnson really wants to follow the traditions of his Victorian forebears, he should join the NUT in insisting on proper investment in high-quality schools, not blaming Councils for 'red-tape' when they rightly question the appropriateness of some of the plans proposed by prospective Free School providers.

The Mayor tries to hide the truth of Tory cuts and penny-pinching by pointing to the extra £982 million in 'targeted basic need' funds being provided to help boroughs set up new schools. Yet, he knows full well that London Councils have written to Michael Gove explaining that the allocation is totally inadequate and based on a funding formula that ignores the high cost of land and building in the capital. 

London Councils estimate that they require an additional £1.04 billion if they are to provide the places needed by 2015/6. Against the background of huge cuts to Council budgets, this is a figure which simply cannot be found - unless the Government provides the necessary investment from central funds. Of course, instead of just complaining about the cuts, councillors should be joining trade unions and communities in a mass campaign to win the resources needed to protect and provide public services.

So, yes, 'Boris', it is high time to 'put aside politics and open the schools we need', as the Standard headline proclaims.  Instead of your ideological insistence on privatised Free Schools, London Councils need the funding - just a small fraction of the billions swilling around the City of London every day - to plan and build the schools we urgently need.

As Christine Blower said in today's press release from the NUT, “In many areas parents are facing rising class sizes and schools are seeing a return to portacabins in their playgrounds to cope with the unmet demand for primary places.  It is time for the Government to change tack and allow local authorities to open new schools in areas where there is a genuine need for new places with adequate funding from central Government.”  

Boris Johnson's article can be read on: http://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/boris-johnson-put-aside-politics-and-open-the-schools-we-need-8625570.html

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