Were it not for the Lib Dems, profit-making free schools would likely have already been introduced by Michael Gove. The Education Secretary has long made his attraction to the idea clear, stating in May 2012 that they could be established under a Conservative majority government. He said then: “There are some of my colleagues in the coalition who are very sceptical of the benefits of profit. I have an open mind. I believe that it may be the case that we can augment the quality of state education by extending the range of people involved in its provision.” Many of Gove’s allies believe that it is only once the profit motive is introduced to the system (as it was in Sweden) that free schools will be able to open at the rate required to deal with the school places crisis.
This raises the question of whether the Conservative manifesto will endorse the idea. In his speech at the Fabian Society today, Tristram Hunt will call the Tories’ bluff, declaring that “Beyond 2015, whether it admits it or not, the Conservative Party intends to introduce the profit motive into English education”. He will attack “the aggressively competitive, fly-or-fail ethos that the Conservative Party aspires to bring to our school system” and warn that “There is almost no public policy… with more capacity to damage the fabric of our society – let alone the educational values we cherish.”
It’s a strong dividing line for Labour. As I’ve noted before, the existing free schools are hugely unpopular with voters and would be even more so were they allowed to be run for profit. The most recent YouGov poll found that just 23 per cent of voters support the schools compared to 53 per cent who oppose them. Whether the weakened Education Secretary will now run shy of the idea (or be forced to by David Cameron) is one of the big questions over the Tories’ election programme.
Update: Team Gove have been in touch to point out that the Education Secretary has more ruled out the introduction of for-profit free schools. Asked by Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh last year “Do you think that you will ever see tax-funded schools run for profit?“, he replied: “No”. They also noted that, contrary to Clegg’s protestations, it was Lib Dems – Julian Astle, Richard Reeves, Jeremy Browne – who were cheerleading for profit-making schools. An Education Department source told me: “If Labour want to campaign against profit in schools, they should direct their fire at the Liberal Democrats, not us.”