Tory Education Secretary Michael Gove is an easy target for comedians. A tweet from David Schneider, “Free Schools to be renamed £400m From Budget For Other Kids Schools”, succinctly summed up the latest news. Unfortunately, Gove’s policies are no laughing matter.
Reports suggest that these millions are being diverted from the Basic Need budget, urgently needed by Local Authorities to provide additional school places, into his pet Free Schools project instead.
‘Free Schools’ are newly-opened privatised academies ‘free’ of those cumbersome regulations like having to staff classes with qualified teachers and having to use recognised school buildings.
They are a key part of Gove’s ideological mission is to accelerate the break-up of state education, replacing locally accountable Local Authority schooling with privatised academies. As with the rest of the public sector, education can then also become another avenue for big business to make money, especially if staff pay and pensions can be cut.
Gove appears to have an ideological belief that ‘the market works’. The history of privatised services, and the recent history of free schools, tells a different story. Several free schools have been hit by high-profile scandals over financial mismanagement and poor educational provision. One of the first to open, Discovery New School in Crawley, has already been forced to close. Yet £3 million was spent on this failed project. In Sweden, the policy has proved disastrous.
Altogether, 174 free schools have opened so far but many in areas where there is no pressing need for additional places left unfilled. However, in areas like London, where the place shortage is becoming critical, councils aren’t being allocated the ‘basic need’ funding they urgently require. £400m could help fund about 30,000 much needed places.
Even if funding is allocated to Local Authorities, Gove has changed legislation to prevent them opening new community schools where they are needed. Instead, new places have to be provided by Free Schools.
Even the cross-party Public Accounts Committee has started to question Gove’s profligacy and both Labour and the LibDems have used the issue as an opportunity to knock Government policy. Unfortunately, while both parties might want to show their opposition as we approach a General Election, their education policies suggest that, if in office, they will follow a very similar path.
Instead of leaving school provision to a chaotic and inefficient free-for-all of private providers, elected Local Authorities should be given the job of planning and providing well-resourced and built new schools - and be given the investment needed so that they can do so.
The Free Schools fiasco exposes the madness of the free-market ideology that has taken over all our main political parties. Trade unions have a responsibility to lead a community struggle to defend public services and to win the resources needed to meet public needs.