The coalition's plans for free schools are given a bit more detail today. As I reported in my recent Public Finance article, there is a greater emphasis on the potential for teacher-led than parent-led schools. Otherwise, we are told that a group of 50 or so parents could club together to demand a new primary school; a larger number will be needed for a secondary (the latter are more likely to be developed by existing academy providers and secondary schools). They will be governed in a way similar to academies, and subject to Ofsted inspections, tests and tables. And the talk now is of taking over shops rather than shiny new buildings. So far, so predictable - and there was a sensible recognition this morning that some will fail, as has happened to over 600 of the 5000+ charter schools in the US .
I have no doubt that there will a number of high profile free school developments, including Toby Young's much publicised plans and those supported by some of the Teach First graduates. A more difficult group will be those parents who set up a free school simply to stymie local authority rationalisations: at a time of spending cuts, there will be some high profile battles with angry councillors. Equally, there will be plenty of difficult judgment calls when the bids from Muslim schools emerge, though it is likely that the efforts of scientologists and other cults will be stopped unless they successfully disguise their true backers.
Labour should not oppose the development of free schools, provided they are non-selective. After all, they build on an architecture developed in its education bills. The main change proposed by Michael Gove is a freeing up of planning restrictions that councils had used - with no attempt by Ed Balls to stop them doing so - to block the parental rights to demand a new school set out in the 2006 Education and Inspections Act. Instead of adopting a kneejerk defence of existing planning rules or local authorities, the next leader of the Labour party should look creatively at the model to develop imaginative new groups of free schools including in disadvantaged areas, some of which might challenge the rigid curriculum orthodoxy schizophrenically embraced by the Conservative front bench. Indeed, such imaginative thinking would be far more likely to help us win back Southern voters than talk of abolishing the charitable status of independent schools.
However, the programme's supporters are being a touch naive in their expectations about how rapidly this programme will develop. The £50 million diversity pot announced today will help some, but it will take a lot more effort than they think to develop a programme of Swedish-style or US charter school proportions. The main reason is that both systems lacked diversity before those developments. Indeed, Swedish free schools are still required to teach the national curriculum. By contrast, a huge diversity and significant autonomy has developed in our system under both Labour and Conservative governments. Not only will there be in excess of 300 academies from this autumn, there are thousands of religious schools (that don't get public funding in the US) and over 1200 foundation schools that have many of the freedoms enjoyed by academies already. Moreover, the degree of autonomy over staff and budgets enjoyed by community - local authority - school heads is far greater than in most other developed countries. Of course, there are challenges in moving our system towards the achievement levels of countries or territories with much higher degrees of ethnic homogeneity like Finland or Singapore, and Gove is right to be ambitious about improving standards, though he is wrong to underestimate how much progress has been made in recent years. But a far greater contribution to that further improvement is likely to emerge from plans for the expansion of mainstream academies, better teacher quality and strong accountability.