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A Labour U-turn on free schools? It's not that simple

Stephen Twigg's speech was neither a capitulation to Gove’s agenda nor a ferocious reaction against it.

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

For a policy intervention to count as a U-turn, two conditions must be met. First, a party needs to have been moving clearly in one direction. Second, after the manoeuvre, it needs to be advancing in the opposite direction. Labour’s announcement today on education policy matches neither requirement.

The opposition has been painfully ambivalent about coalition school reforms, which have their genesis in the Blair-era policy. Labour has been unsure whether or how to salvage some of its intellectual property from Michael Gove’s zealous pursuit of academies and free schools.

Today, Stephen Twigg has tried to bring some clarity to Labour’s position. It isn’t easy. The shadow education secretary has both repudiated and acquiesced to coalition policy. The acquiescence is in accepting that the frenetic advance of academies and the creation of free schools under the current government would not be reversed. A Labour government would, however, apply brakes to Gove’s speeding juggernaut.

Twigg says:

Labour will not continue with Michael Gove’s Free Schools policy. Existing free schools and those in the pipeline will continue. But in future we need a better framework for creating new schools …

There will be no bias for or against a school type- so new academies, new maintained schools, new trust schools - all options. A school system based on evidence not dogma.

But then again, he also says:

Labour strongly believes parents have an important role to play in calling for and setting up new local schools. … Labour started the academies programme to bring outside energy and expertise into the schools system, we want to extend that to parents.

That sounds like a dilute version of existing policy.

The real element of repudiation is subtle but intellectually important. Twigg argues that new academies or free schools should not be set up in areas where there are already sufficient school places. Adding such excess capacity, Labour argues, is wasteful (because limited resources should go to areas where there is insufficient supply and classrooms are overcrowded) and divisive (because parents, it is feared, use free schools to segregate their children from neighbours whom they deem undesirable).

According to Twigg, Labour would change the emphasis in the academies policy from expansion of volume – rejecting Gove's habit of measuring success by the sheer number of schools breaking free from local authority control – to collaboration between schools and enforcing fair admissions policies.

But for Gove, excess supply of school places in some areas is not some accidental by-product of the system, it is the logical extension of the market mechanism that is meant to improve standards. New schools are supposed to arrive on the doorstep of established ones and compete for the attention of parents. The process that Labour sees as chaotic and divisive is, in Conservative terms, the positive force of creative disruption that will unleash innovation and, through increased competition, drive up standards.

This is now the essential division between Labour and Conservatives on education policy. Academies and free schools will be part of the landscape regardless of who wins the next election. But under a Tory education secretary the anticipated mechanism for improving performance in weak schools will by market forces. Education providers, including eventually profit-making private-sector companies, will compete for the custom of parents hoping to send their children to whichever institution appears to offer the best prospects.

And under a Labour education secretary, the expected mechanism for improving performance in weak schools will be intervention, directed by government, in the form of partnership with other, more successful schools. Crudely speaking, the Conservatives like free school and academies because they are supposed to give complacent local authority schools a kick up the backside, while Labour can live with free schools and academies if they give local authority schools a helping hand.

One result of today's announcement is that Labour’s education policy now officially lacks ideological purity. It is neither a capitulation to Gove’s agenda nor a ferocious reaction against it. Twigg’s soggy middle-way position will disappoint dogmatists on both sides of the debate, which is probably a sign that he is standing in about the right place.