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Are free schools really widening choice?

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

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

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 …