13 October 2018

Learning from free schools


This week, a government minister made a speech defending his party’s record in government on his brief. If that doesn’t sound especially interesting, that’s because it shouldn’t be.

But Education Secretary Damian Hinds’s defence of free schools in a speech to the Confederation of School Trusts broke the comparative silence on what was once a flagship Conservative policy.

Hinds made the case “for freedom, for diversity, and for accountability in our school system” with a refreshing amount of confidence in his party’s approach to one of the most important areas of domestic policymaking.

The establishment of free schools has been a major change in British education and – even if Hinds has been given a ticking off for his use of statistics – the evidence suggests that change has been a positive one. They are a cost-effective way of providing the extra school places Britain needs. They are overwhelmingly built in areas where they are needed. Parents are voting with their feet. In 2015, secondary free schools attracted, on average, 3.5 applicants per place. The figure for local authority schools was 2.3.

In other words, the introduction of free schools is something Conservatives should be proud of. Education is also an area where there is a sharp dividing line between the two major parties.

If autonomy is the watchword of the Conservative approach, it is the antithesis of what the Opposition has planned. Labour would bring the establishment of free schools and academies to an immediate end and return powers over admissions and building new schools to councils.

Of course, Labour don’t frame the debate in terms of autonomy versus council control. They tell a simpler story of Tories frittering money away on their free school vanity project while starving the wider education system of the resources it needs.

So long as it is framed that way, Labour will win the argument. Theresa May learned the political potency of education funding the hard way; some argue that a head teachers’ letter-writing campaign just before polling day last year had a big impact on the general election.

Most frustrating of all is the gap between reality and the nightmarish picture of swingeing cuts to school funding painted by the Opposition and teachers’ unions. School funding per pupil was more or less constant from 2010 to 2015. Funding per pupil was due to fall slightly between 2015 and 2020, but the government announced an additional £1.3 billion for the schools budget last year, meaning funding per pupil will basically remain unchanged. And don’t forget the bigger picture: funding per pupil has doubled in real terms since 1997.

But this less remarkable reality hasn’t stopped Labour from fighting the education battle on terrain that suits them.

What is true of education is true across a wide range of domestic policy areas. A failure to stick up for Conservative policies if they date from before Theresa May’s time in Number Ten has left little in voters’ minds other than austerity.

Consider, for example, this week’s row about Universal Credit and whether the reform needs more funding to work properly. (Centre for Social Justice CEO and passionate believer in Universal Credit Andy Cook argued that it does on CapX.) The Opposition have successfully recast the welfare overhaul as a heartless cost-saving device, not an attempt to combat the problem of worklessness.

Cancelling austerity, as Theresa May announced at Conservative Party Conference, does not solve the problem. The Prime Minister and her party’s choice is clear: fight Corbyn on something other than public spending or lose the next election.

This article is taken from CapX’s Weekly Briefing email. Sign up here.

Oliver Wiseman is Editor of CapX.