What should Labour be saying on free schools?

The ongoing debate over Free Schools has once again been fired up by claims of radicalisation in Birmingham. This comes hot on the heels of the government finally beginning to act to ban the teaching of creationism.
However the creation debate pans out, the general point remains – since free achools are allowed wide scope to set their own curriculum, this opens the door to education being more about what parents (or certain groups) want children to know (or what they do not want them to know), rather than what the collective would deem appropriate.
For Labour – a party of the masses – this is ideologically difficult.

There have also been broader issues that have caused rifts in the coalition parties, one being the employment of unqualified teachers. While some have argued that free schools allow for those who are great at a subject to teach it without red tape getting in the way, most see it as a lowering of standards, and a basic failure of providing education. For many, it undermines the education profession.
The facts are stark. Ofsted inspections are being failed at three times the normal rate by free schools, with a smaller percentage attaining a good or outstanding rating compared to state schools. If it was an issue of quality then the creation of free schools has been found wanting, if it is an issue of filling a gap of provision then it has also not achieved that either.

Parliamentary papers showed that in 2012 an NUT report argued that “many of the existing 24 free schools or those that are due to open later this year will have a negative impact on existing good or outstanding local schools.” Also that “NUT’s request for details of impact assessments made by the education secretary had been turned down by the DFE”

If this is true, then free schools are actually hampering state schools in areas that had been doing well. As well as this, the refusal to show the impact assessments may point to an awareness that free schools are not having a positive effect. And yet in September 2014 there will be 102 new free schools being opened, despite the events that have happened and despite public feeling.

Even before some of the more recent issues became known, public support for free schools had been dropping. In October 2013, YouGov released data that showed opposition to free schools had gone up to 47 per cent, and support for them had dropped to 27 per cent. The data also showed that, across the political spectrum, all four main parties had at least 65 per cent believing that only those that are formally qualified should be able to teach. The parties also did not drop below 56 per cent in their support for all schools following the national curriculum.

Labour needs to bear such feeling in mind. The Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin University has spent the past month surveying over 400 Labour councillors in marginal constituencies ahead of the next election. This data, to be released in full next week, shows that over 50 per cent of those surveyed support scrapping free schools, or at least putting them under the control of the Local Education Authority.

Almost a third (30 per cent) would consent to their retention, but demand further regulation.
And equally, when offered a choice of a range of pledges from committing to scrap the bedroom tax to freezing energy bills, precisely zero Labour councillors plumped for the current line on free schools as the most obvious vote winner for Labour on their patch.
And it’s arguably little wonder. Labour does not yet seem to have a clear policy on free schools, other than their general disapproval of instances of obvious malpractice.

With widespread feeling amongst the public against free schools, and the same amongst Labour councillors, it would seem that taking a decisive stance against them could prove not just a vote winner, but also something that would help unite the majority of the party. The data suggests action is necessary.
Josh Younespour is a history student at Anglia Ruskin University and research assistant at the Labour History Research Unit (LHRU). He writes in a personal capacity. The LHRU will release full data from a survey of Labour councillors next week.

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