The coalition’s free schools dilemma

Ministers can’t keep costs down, keep the profiteers out <em>and</em> get the revolutionary programm

The government's free schools programme has started with a whimper. Not so long ago, ministers were talking of new schools teaching as many as 220,000 students. Actual number of new schools now likely to open their doors this September: 16.

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, denies that this is a disappointment. The programme was always going to start slowly, he says. Free schools are meant to snowball, with increasing numbers opening in each year between now and the election. Except . . . it's not clear that's what is going to happen at all. If something doesn't change, in fact, free schools are always going to remain a sideshow. And no one in government seems sure what to do about it.

It all comes down to buildings – or rather, the money to pay for them. The groups trying to set up free schools are for the most part composed of parents or teachers. They don't generally have a few million quid lying about with which to build a new school. This, the wonks have always said, doesn't really matter. There is no reason new schools need own a building: renting one is quite sufficient. And where there are empty classrooms in existing schools, well, why not let new schools borrow them and pay for the privilege?

The problem is, neither of these things actually seems to work. Free-school groups don't have a credit history, so no one will lease them a building. (The government has said it will guarantee such leases, but it is yet to put its money where its mouth is.) And, unsurprisingly, neither free schools nor existing comprehensives seem all that keen on shacking up together.

So, the first generation of new free schools look like it is mostly going to be set up in buildings specially purchased for the purpose, using government money. And Partnerships for Schools, a quango that until recently seemed destined for the scrapheap, has been given the job of finding them.

The impression those close to the programme give is one of blind panic, with PfS being mandated to do something, anything, to make sure the first new schools can open on schedule.

This is all fine when there are only a few projects in the pipeline. But no one thinks it'll work once there are hundreds. Apart from anything else, it's too expensive. Back in February, a BBC investigation found that one free school had been promised £15m for its new building. You don't have to be an accountant to see that the £100m set aside for the programme isn't going to go very far.

There is another option: allowing free schools to make a profit. If private companies were allowed to make money from state schools, they would have an incentive to invest their own capital. It's this that allowed the free school programme to balloon in Sweden. The British government, though, isn't going to let that happen. Even before last year's election, the Tories weren't keen on the message it sends. With the Liberal Democrats to keep happy, too, profit-making schools are now seen as a complete non-starter.

The Department for Education is trying to fudge this a little by making it harder for free school projects to qualify for government assistance. This will likely mean a shift in type of groups promoting schools, from parent and teacher groups, which can't afford buildings, to big academy chains, which can. That will make it easier for those schools that do qualify to open their doors. But it also represents a quiet acceptance that Gove's original vision, of a parent-led revolution, is never going to fly.

The government wants three things: to create enough new schools to shake up state education; to keep the profiteers out; and to keep the cost to the taxpayer down. But it can't win on all three fronts. One of them is going to have to give. And right now, it looks like the revolution will be the one to get tossed aside.

Jonn Elledge is a journalist covering politics and the public sector. He is currently editor of EducationInvestor magazine.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.