Are free schools really widening choice?

Parents who want a new local school are offered a free school or nothing.

While many in my party are opposed to free schools in principle, I am reluctant to man the barricades on every occasion one is approved. I am sure many of the schools offer a fine education, with nuanced but important variations from the national curriculum that parents think important and children find stimulating and exciting. Nor do I think Michael Gove is the devil incarnate for introducing them – I suspect he is sincerely trying to improve educational standards in the way he thinks is best, even if I don’t agree with all he is doing (by a long shot).

I do, however, question the assumption that the free school movement is all about parental choice. That’s not how it feels to me.

In my own area, Zac Goldsmith hosted a public meeting a couple of weeks ago to tell local parents that the money promised for a new local education authority school had gone down the plughole with the demise of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme – and that the only realistic way in which central government funding would be secured to deliver a desperately needed new school would be if a successful bid for a free school was made. Two other choices were mentioned – to cut £25 million from other local services or to add five per cent to council tax. Neither seemed attractive. Thus the choice on offer appears to be: "it’s a free school - take it or leave it".

After I wrote about this, Zac has tweeted to me that the free school funding option offers more parental choice than under BSF. Again, that’s not how I see it. Under the free school movement, there may well be multiple local applications for a new school – but the choice of which type of school will emerge rests not with parents but with the Education Secretary, who will ultimately decide which sort of school is best.

I’m also concerned that the Lib Dems are being slightly complacent about all this.  Nick Clegg told the Social Liberal Forum conference on Saturday that he had stopped Gove putting free schools "everywhere". I promise you, Nick, if you have, it doesn’t feel like it on the ground.

If parental choice was at the centre of this programme, parents would first be asked if they wanted an LEA or centrally-funded school, before then being asked what changes they would like to see on that school’s curriculum from the standard. But currently, as one councillor said publicly the other week, "I have to have a new school and I’m going to do whatever I have to in order to get it built, even if I end up having to call it ‘The Michael Gove Free School’".

Which would actually not be such a bad strategy when you consider who is actually going to end up making the choice …

Education Secretary Michael Gove at The Royal Courts of Justice to give evidence to the Leveson inquiry earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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