11 July 2017

Don’t sacrifice free schools to balance the books


Poor Michael Gove. He has finally been readmitted to the Cabinet – only to have to watch as his educational legacy is dismantled.

If that sounds hyperbolic, consider the report in today’s Times (£) stating that Justine Greening and her officials are considering plugging the hole in the education budget with the money that was to be devoted to building new free schools.

The situation is complicated, but roughly goes as follows. For years, education funding in Britain has been allotted in an unfair fashion. Some areas (especially rich, urban ones) get thousands of pounds more per pupil than others.

The new funding formula was meant to even things out. Unfortunately, it came at a time when education funding in general was being squeezed. Given that real-terms spending per pupil has doubled at both primary and secondary level since 1997, this was not quite the act of savagery that Left-wingers would have you believe. But the result was a double blow to some schools – and an election campaign was conducted to a background chorus of teachers waving their bloody stumps, letters sent to parents telling them how many staff members would have to be laid off because of Evil Tory Cuts, etc. (Senior Tories maintain that without the anger whipped up at the school gates over this issue, their party would have a majority now.)

The Conservative manifesto did promise that no school would have its budget cut (in cash terms) – but no one cared. So now, in their post-election sackcloth-and-ashes mode, the Tories have agreed not only that there will be no losers to the funding formula, but that they will not scrap universal free school meals – a bung to the middle classes dreamed up by Nick Clegg back in 2014.

The problem with all this generosity (even before you consider the added demands for teachers’ pay restrictions to be relaxed) is that it leaves the Government needing to find lots more money: about £4 billion more. So the money devoted to building new free schools looks like a tempting target. Particularly given helpful research from the Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office which point out that there’s also a pressing need to the crumbling infrastructure of existing schools, that free schools are an expensive way to provide the new places we undoubtedly need – and that there’s no guarantee, given the bottom-up nature of the system, that those new free schools will be in the right places.

But this is where the argument breaks down. Taking the money from the free schools budget to fund the formula changes isn’t just a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. It’s an argument that shows the stranglehold the “Blob” – Chris Woodhead‘s name for the forces of reaction within the education system – still has on policy-making.

In the Times story, a “source close to Ms Greening” said that the key question was “how we get maximum value for every place we can create”. But that’s hogwash. The key question is how we get maximum educational value for every place we can create. Bolting another classroom on to one of Alastair Campbell’s “bog-standard” comprehensives may be the cheapest way of creating new school places. But it is hard to argue that it provides value for money in the long run – for the economy, for society or for the unlucky students involved.

Free schools, by contrast, are generally high-quality: as the New Schools Network points out, they are more likely to be rated outstanding by Ofsted, they attract far more applicants per place than local authority schools, and they generally get better exam results. Contrary to the idea that they are a middle-class luxury, they are also mostly in the right areas: there are three times as many free schools in the most deprived parts of England as in the least deprived, and the overwhelmingly majority are in places where there is a clear demographic need for more school places.

And if they are more expensive, they are only more expensive than bolting on extra classrooms. Obviously, finding a site for a new school – and, in particular, buying the land – is a hugely costly business. But free schools do it more cheaply than under Labour’s equivalent programme, and than equivalent schools built by local authorities. There are also ways to set up free schools that aren’t as capital-intensive: for example by planting them within existing schools, or converting buildings from other uses. And repairing existing schools is obviously a good idea – but not if they’re not up to scratch to begin with.

The truth is that many of the people attacking free schools are not attacking them because they think they’re a waste of money. They are attacking them because they don’t like the idea of free schools.

For the members of the Blob – the teaching unions, the local authorities, even many within the Department for Education – the ideal model for education is traditional and top-down. The number of school places will neatly and precisely match the number of children in a given area. If more places are needed, a buzzer will go off in town hall or Whitehall and more will be provided.

The spirit that inspired the Gove reforms – and, to be fair, those of Tony Blair and Lord Adonis before him – is precisely the opposite. It holds that the only way to drive up educational standards is to create competition between schools. Where a school is failing, or where there is high demand, we should give parents the ability to set up another – then let market pressures either drive the bad schools out of business, or force them to get their act together (which may involve decapitating and replacing the school’s leadership).

It’s another manifestation of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Instead of handing every citizen a ration card, valid for one state education (no refunds), you give parents the power to choose the education they want for their children – and to switch providers, or even set up their own, if the options are inadequate. Miraculously, the places that appear turn out to match demand far more precisely and effectively than any central planner could have dreamt of.

The current funding crunch, in other words, is being used to refight the battle that Gove and Adonis already won. “Surplus places” in a given area are being presented as an unaffordable luxury. But in fact, they’re a necessity – because for the market to work, there needs to be genuine choice. That’s why it’s so important to get to a situation where money really does follow the pupil, and where there is every incentive for the best schools to expand to meet market demand. Otherwise you’re left with the situation we have in health. There, patients can theoretically pick their hospital and doctor. But in practice they often settle for second-best because there’s no capacity free, at least not within any reasonable timeframe.

Obviously, we need to make sure that we’re getting value for money in terms of the school places we create – not least because we need another 420,000 of them in England alone between 2016 and 2021. But cutting back the free schools programme would sabotage one of the Conservatives’ genuine lasting accomplishments, depriving children of the greater choice and better education that they need and deserve. It would also be a classic case of eating the seed corn, particularly if we end up instead with bad councils expanding bad schools at the cheapest possible price.

There are many areas where cuts could be made: the universal payment of benefits to the wealthy elderly, for example. Education, by contrast, is one of the few areas of government spending that is actually an investment – in the future of those pupils, and the country as a whole. Let’s make sure we’re investing in what works.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX