Sunday, 28 September 2008

The flaw at the heart of Cameron's schools plan

The Sunday papers have been persuaded that a Cameron-led government would open either 3000 or 5000 new schools, thanks to their 'free schools' proposals modelled on the Swedish system. The figures are pure guesswork: they are simply made up, and in some ways, the proposal is an extension of existing Government policy. Academies and school competitions have made it easier for diverse new providers to set up new state schools. There will be 400 academies - secondary schools with similar governance to that proposed by the Tories - within the next few years. (Which will be news to the Mail on Sunday, which thinks there is a local authority monopoly on new schools that the Tories would abolish).

But the difference between Labour and the Tories lies in a word that is apparently a dirty word: planning. Labour has been deliberately replacing failing schools with academies, as part of a drive to remove poor schools from the system. With floor targets to raise the minimum standard, they have successfully driven up standards already. The government has been encouraging and cajoling new providers to get involved. And with new schools costing around £20 million, this makes sense.

Let's be clear. The Tories are not guaranteeing 3000 or 5000 new schools. They are saying that if people get together and decide to set up these schools, then there might be 3000 new schools. In fact, Labour has already built around 1200 new schools, and it has funded the capital costs both of doing so and of renewing many more. But there has been an attempt both to prioritise and target funding, and to insist on linkage to school reform.

Those likely to take advantage of the Tory plans will be fourfold. The first are the education charities involved in the academies programme at present. It is not clear, however, that they have the capacity to move into hundreds of schools. The second may be some groups of parents, some of whom are already putting ideas into school competitions. Several parent power schools have opened under Labour, and there may be demand for more. The third will be people unhappy that unviable schools are being closed as primary school pupil numbers fall. The extent to which they succeed under these plans will depend on whether the Tories set a minimum school size. At present, such schools are typically amalgamated into new extended schools, with improved facilities. And the fourth will be Muslim groups who currently run fee-paying schools. It is likely that several hundred such schools would be the first to be set up. Which is not necessarily a bad thing: such schools are better regulated in the state sector, but I'm not sure that Dominic Grieve had this is mind when he sounded off yesterday.

What the Tories are proposing is not the same as the Swedish model, in one crucial and costly respect. In Sweden, where a group of parents or a private company wants to set up a school, and fulfils regulatory requirements on the curriculum and inspection, it receives some cash for each pupil it educates. It does not receive capital funding. That way, if it fails, the taxpayer is not greatly out of pocket. But the Tories plan to raid £4 billion from Building Schools for the Future to gamble on their success. The result is likely to be a large deadweight cost, which will eventually limit the programme. It is also likely to mean a lot of disappointment in areas that were counting on a well-equipped new school through the BSF programme.

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