Are we witnessing a new schools revolution? If so, it has got off to a shaky start. This summer, the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, was forced to retract overblown claims about the new academies and then apologise for his careless announcements on funding cuts to the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. As the new term began, few schools had completed the application process to become academies. And only 16 "free schools" will be opening in 2011.
But if Gove's interview in last week's NS is anything to go by, the coalition is hiding its disappointment well. Gove is particularly skilful at deploying egalitarian language to promote what many see as a subtly divisive agenda, in which thousands of maintained schools in poorer areas could be left struggling from funding cuts and competition from government-favoured independent state schools. The resulting problems in local schools will surely be blamed on Labour, New and Old.
The Academies Act, enabling the conversion of schools into academies, is now law - it was pushed through with unseemly haste in late July. Behind the scenes, Department for Education officials have apparently been offering head teachers "help and advice" on the merits of conversion.
Many schools are now in a difficult position. As one chair of governors of an outstanding urban secondary school told me: "Nobody thinks that academy status itself will improve our position, or bemoaning the local authority either - but we are facing real cuts in funding and the possibility of redundancies. It's purely about money." She said she had worked out that her school would receive an extra £1.2m if it became an academy, though roughly half of that would be spent on buying back services.
Despite the fanfare about the new pupil premium, details of which will be announced this autumn, few heads of schools with high numbers of children on free school meals - and therefore likely to benefit from the premium - believe that this will make up even a small proportion of the shortfall in funding cuts from other sources.
According to Councillor Mary Arnold, lead member for children and families in Brent, north London, there is a fear of reductions in funding for local authorities' central services, which support special-needs education, school improvement and curriculum and professional development. "The dilemma for governors could be: if one school becomes an academy, will there be anything left for central services and, by implication, for our school?" she says.
Meanwhile, the lure of a new free school may prove tempting to a few ambitious or worried parents, especially - as Gove seems to suggest in his NS interview - as we move closer to a crude schools market in which parents, frequently unaware of the complex funding and admissions priorities that shape our hierarchical and unequal education system, are simply encouraged to "choose to shop at Waitrose rather than Tesco". Not a word about those who do end up at Tesco, to use this snobbish comparison, nor the many thousands more who might actually trust in central government to provide a decent school in every neighbourhood.
Arnold fears that, in Brent, "groups of professionals and parents will be bidding [for free schools] like Toby Young's group in Ealing, as they can't get their children into good local schools. There will also be interest from groups whose children usually underachieve."
The government insists that all schools, bar the existing grammars that convert to academies, will be "all-ability" schools and retain an admissions code. Yet many fear a future relaxation of admissions policy, meaning schools could quickly be pitted against one another in a scramble to win the so-called best pupils. The losers here would undoubtedly be the disadvantaged pupils, bar the very brightest, who would be siphoned into the new academies and free schools.
Arnold also fears further segregation along class and ethnic lines, given that evidence from the Swedish free schools "shows that ethnic-minority-based schools become segregated in the second generation".
So what role will private companies play in the new school set-up? Astonishingly, 75 per cent of Swedish free schools are run for profit. In the UK, companies such as Pearson, Serco, Tribal, Nord Anglia, Edison Learning, Cambridge Education and even the Premier League have expressed an interest in running schools or providing support services in the sector. Gems, the world's biggest provider of independent education abroad, now run by the former Ofsted chair Zenna Atkins, says that several groups have already approached it.
Jon Berry, an education campaigner based in Hertfordshire, is fighting against the encroachment of Kunskapsskolan, a private company that runs 32 schools in Sweden. It has taken over its first UK academy in Richmond, west London, and has also expressed an interest in several schools in the Hertfordshire area. According to Berry, it is "offering not-for-profit services but it's pretty clear that it has a profit agenda down the line. It pays its teachers by exam results and, as in the academies, tears up [national agreements on] teachers' pay and conditions." The challenge is to get parents to see that "these schools offer no clear benefit to them. But you can understand why working-class communities might say: 'We'll grab whatever is going.'"
So where is the opposition to the plans coming from? This month, the increasingly effective Anti Academies Alliance will be launching a campaign called A Fight for Every School, which supports local resistance to plans to convert schools to academy status without proper consultation. Public anger has undoubtedly been fuelled by the cuts to BSF funding and Gove's telling lack of care with detail.
As for Labour, Ed Balls did a credible job of opposing the Academies Bill and BSF cuts, but the party is compromised by its pro-market, pro-choice line of the Blair years and by its failure to support local authorities as leading players in providing high-quality local provision.
The coming political struggle is not, as the coalition would have it, between stifling centralisation and the local freedom to flourish. After all, academies and free schools will be accountable to central government and their private paymasters only. Similarly, support for freedom of heads and teachers is entirely compatible with democratic accountability and a strong role for the local authority.
Polls consistently show that parents are far happier with local schools than the press leads us to believe; moreover new studies, such as one by Bristol University released last month, indicate a shift in public mood and that most people would be happy with less choice and for the state to make big decisions for them. There is a sober case for more planning and investment (and higher taxation) in the interests of both fairness and improved school quality. But who in the current climate has the political courage to make that kind of alternative argument?
Melissa Benn's book on education "The New Class Wars" will be published by Verso in 2011
We don't need new education
In the run-up to the general election, the Conservative Party promised to provide 220,000 new school places over the next ten years.
Once the Tories got into power, legislation enabling the creation of free schools and the conversion of successful state schools into academies was introduced in the Commons, and the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, announced that more than 1,000 schools had already expressed an interest in converting.
Gove was forced to back down quickly on this claim after publication of the full list of schools made it clear that many were simply "registering an interest". The Academies Act is now law, but so far only 153 schools have definitely announced plans to enter the scheme, almost all of them in better-off parts of the country.
The free schools have run into similar problems. The New Schools Network, an organisation awarded £500,000 by the coalition to speed up the process, has indicated that up to 700 groups have been in touch from around the country.
However, recent press reports suggest that, despite enthusiastic government backing and the relaxation of critical planning regulations, only 16 will open in September 2011. Some high-profile projects are among those facing delays, including the Bolingbroke Academy in Wandsworth, south-west London.