Michael Gove put a brave face on it over the weekend as he sought to talk up interest in free schools. Yet for all the rhetorical enthusiasm, the fact is that just eight primary free schools are likely to be ready to open in the next two years, with perhaps another 27 in some sense advanced. We should not scorn these projects: each represents the vision of their promoters and can offer extra diversity in their communities. But one can question the importance of their development to wider school reform. The TES in an editorial last Friday argued that free schools are an irrelevant sideshow, arguing that the system is only likely to take off if for-profit providers are allowed, something politically untenable at least before the next election.
And a closer inspection of the eight free schools announced on Friday suggests little that could not have been established under existing programmes.
* There is a Suffolk school becoming 'free' to avert local authority closure by becoming a secondary school
* Jewish, Hindu and Anglican religious schools of the sort that expanded significantly under Labour
* A Montessori school that will surely eschew ministerial phonics edicts
* Two schools that actually call themselves academies, one established by Ark, one of the strongest academy chains and the other by a next door primary academy in Enfield.
* There is only one school that suggests a genuine desire by parents and teachers to introduce something wholly new: The Free School, Norwich
Essentially they are eight new academies - albeit mainly in the primary sector where Labour unwisely declined to expand academies. They differ little from existing academies or religious schools, and the pattern seems little different with most of the other 27 (aside, perhaps, from the planned Mahirishi school in Lancashire.
All of which makes one wonder why Andy Burnham, Labour's education spokesman, has set himself so against free schools. His opposition is as ridiculous as the elaborate claims being made by their enthusiasts on the other side. Free schools may offer a useful addition to the educational landscape, they may provide a little extra competition (and a few planning headaches for some councils). And they may give their pupils and parents a sense that state education can meet their needs.
But they seem pretty unlikely to transform the system in the way that the original secondary academies (and, legally, free schools are simply academies) - particularly those established in disadvantaged areas with strong sponsors - already have. That is because, unlike Sweden or America, where free and charter schools have thrived, Britain already has a strong tradition of diversity and independence in the state sector. That said, no Labour government is going to reverse what has already been set up: so our spokespeople should stop pretending otherwise. Instead, let's welcome those free schools that see the light of day, but focus our energies on ensuring that academies - whatever they are called - continue to advance the lifechances of children in the poorest areas of the country.