Coffee House

Tristram Hunt should worry about failure in council schools, not free schools

13 March 2014

12:10 PM

13 March 2014

12:10 PM

Tristram Hunt seems delighted today that Britain’s first profit-seeking school has been deemed ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted. The scores of council-run failing schools, several in his Stoke constituency, don’t seem to be worthy of his ire. But when a free school stumbles, in Suffolk, he declares this to be…

‘…more evidence of the damage David Cameron’s Free School policy is doing to school standards. The lack of local oversight and a policy that allows unqualified teachers into classrooms on a permanent basis is the wrong approach. We know that this is not an isolated case. That’s why it’s all the more shocking that Cameron is refusing to change course and insist on qualified teachers in every classroom and a system of local oversight that can spot underperformance before it sets in.’

I genuinely think that Hunt, who benefited from an independent education, must know this is bunkum. Why should the poor be denied choice in education, the choice his parents exercised? And Hunt’s school hired brilliant, but not always formally qualified, teachers. By ‘local oversight’ he means putting these schools back under the control of local bureaucrats. Understandably, he didn’t mention his worst policy: that he’d veto any free school that wanted to expand in area where there are vacancies to fill in bad schools (or ‘surplus places’, as they are known in bureaucratese).

In a piece for today’s Guardian, Hunt refers to me as a ‘long-time advocate of for-profit schooling’ and claims that in my Daily Telegraph article two weeks ago I ‘got Gove’s excuses about IES Breckland in first’. On the first charge, I plead guilty. Evidence shows that profit-seeking schools expand faster, rather than lazily look at the waiting list lengthen. Britain has no shortage of excellent schools. But non-profit ones, like Harrow, are quite content to have a long waiting list – what an easy life! And what would happen if you opened a Harrow in Gateshead? Something might go wrong.

International English School took these risks, which is why it’s now Sweden’s no1 school. Expansion means risk and, in Breckland, problems can be encountered.


Trunt’s suggestion that Gove somehow inspired my piece is laughable.  As CoffeeHousers know, I have been arguing for years – about the Swedish model with room-emptying conviction. I was writing in the Spectator about the Swedish free school model long before it was adopted as Tory policy, and I doubt Gove even knew that IES was about to be given a ‘fail’.

In fact, I was alerted to problems in Breckland by an excellent local blogger, James Hargrave, who is a critic of the project. But to me, this is a virtue of the system. Free schools are being held up to a very high standard, their every fault magnified – but this is to the good. If every failing school had a blogger like Hargrave on their back, highlighting every inconvenient fact or every mysterious resignation, there would be a lot less failure in the system.

I visited IES Breckland months ago ago with Matthew Hancock, the local MP, who was proud of the role he played in saving the school from closure and putting parents in touch with International English School, Sweden’s no1 school chain. Not a word from Hancock today, which is depressing. It’s easy to demand reform, harder to legislate for it. But the real test comes when your reforms hit turbulence. There are 178 free schools; next year there’ll be closer to 300. If you were to set up 300 new businesses, you’d expect at least 30 to hit trouble. But as Hunt knows, it’s very easy to stick the knife into one school when it does stumble. Easier still when Tories scarper, running from trouble rather than standing their ground and defending their policy. Hancock is a fighter, though, and I fully expect him to be defending IES Breckland’s turnaround team later.

The graph below shows IES results, compared to the free school average. Given that most free schools are profit-seekers in Sweden, it does not quite amount to proof that the system is failing.

Gove’s system means new watchdogs. Hostile bloggers. Parents, who have the power to move their children. Parent companies, able to move in. The truth is that IES in Stockholm knew Breckland was failing, and had hired a new head teacher before the inspectors came to call.

I’m not saying that profit-seeking schools are better, just that they expand faster. And I am saying that there should be no place for bigotry towards them, from either the left or the right. To suggest that teachers in profit-seeking schools have less ‘sense of mission’ that other schools is simply ludicrous.

My point: that the test is not whether free schools stumble. Of course they will. The test is how quickly problems are spotted, and resolved. The watchdogs do seem to be biting.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Guy Falkenau

    But free schools were supposed to be the answer to failing council run schools. They were meant to raise standards and now we find that they can be deemed failing too. But the worst aspect of the current experiment in creating a market in educational provision is that it doesn’t guarantee the provision of school places where we need them and that can impact on the most economically disadvantaged parents.It is of no help to them to know that a free school has opened two miles away if the viability of their council run neighbourhood school has been undermined. Previous education legislation imposed a duty on local education authorities to consult parents, governors and staff on changes to provision within an adjacent radius of existing schools.In place of local democracy we now have the chaos of the market superimposed by central government fiat

  • WSOS

    Any school can “succeed” if they are selective. The real test is for them to succeed when they are teaching those who are not selected. That is why the myth of the success of the grammar schools still exists. Many underachieved but, because they had a selected intake, gave the appearance of success. The main point about Sweden is that it is no more successful that the UK – so the question is: why do we talk about it? Why not talk about Finland, which is consistently more successful. Is that because the profit and self interest is not there?

  • HookesLaw

    If Hunt knows as you suggest that his words are bunkum then why do you not come out and label him for what he then must be – a liar?

    • Fatboy295

      Politicians don’t lie. They euphemise

      I think hillary Clintons ‘mis-spoke’ is a superb example.

      They also complain that they are not respected

      Mmmmmm I wonder if the two go together?

    • Andy

      Hunt has always been a right c***.

      He is a typical lying, hypocritical member of the Fascist Labour Party. We should privatise eduction and allow people the freedom of choice by handing back power to the people.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Hunt is a liar. Aaaah, that felt good.

  • exSecondaryModernTeacher

    IES appointed the head, Sherry Zand, who was at the helm when IES allegedly noticed the school was failing. Could it be the IES appointed head wasn’t up to the job?

    Zand left suddenly in Autumn 2013 after the abrupt exit of six members of staff . Ofsted says the loss of key figures n Autumn 2013 “seriously disrupted” education.

    Could it also be that Sabres Educational Trust wasn’t competent enough to challenge what was going on? The whole venture whiffs of amateurism.

    However, you’re correct that schools should be given time to improve. This courtesy should be extended to maintained schools said to be failing. The brokers are knocking on their doors before the F word has hardly been spoken.

  • exSecondaryModernTeacher

    OECD guru, Andreas Schleicher, told the Education Select Committee last week that if you looked at Sweden for how free school worked you might think twice. More info here:

  • exSecondaryModernTeacher

    The “scores of council-run failing schools” in Stoke is rather an exaggeration.

    Five non-academy Stoke primaries are inadequate. Nine non-academy Stoke primaries were judged to Require Improvement or be Satisfactory (under the old Ofsted regime). 70% of non-academy primary schools are actually Good or better which matches national figures.

    One of the four remaining secondary non-academies is Good and one is judged to Require Improvement. The remaining two non-academy secondary schools are Inadequate.

    So, to sum up: 5 inadequate primary non-academies + 2 inadequate secondary non-academies = 7 inadequate non-academies. 7 does not equal “scores”.

    7 inadequate non-academies + 10 non-academies requiring improvement = 17. 17 does not equal “scores”.

    • HookesLaw

      The point is (and Nelson may have changed it but he says ‘several’) that Hunt says nothing about the failing schools in his own constituency. He is not in the least bit bothered about council run failing schools which are lost in the local govt quagmire, he is only interested in peddling labour propaganda in supporting the odious teaching unions which used to wipe your backside.

      Free schools can be set up and if they fail they can be shut down which is more than can be said happens for the useless ‘bog standard’ schools in the state system.

      • exSecondaryModernTeacher

        Thanks for pointing out Nelson’s “scores” of failing council-run schools were not all in Stoke, just several of them. I had misread the sentence. Apologies.

        However, 78% of ALL state schools in England are now good or better according to Ofsted. Yes, there are some inadequate LA maintained schools; but there are also inadequate academies and free schools.

        I enjoyed your parody of government propaganda: “local govt quagmire” as if you didn’t know schools haven’t been controlled by LAs since Local Management of Schools was introduced in the 80s; “peddling labour propaganda” and “odious teaching unions”.

        However, I think you went a little too far when you said they “used to wipe your backside”.

        You’re misguided about not being able to close LA maintained schools. Quite a few have been forced to become academies and handed over to sponsors many of which seem to be giving lucrative contracts to firms linked to the trustees or their families. The chair of the Public Accounts Committee has said this practice is “just wrong”. You can read more here:

        • andagain

          However, 78% of ALL state schools in England are now good or better according to Ofsted.

          So 22% of them are failing? So if one free school or academy in five was failing, they would be doing slightly better than the average state school…

          • Makroon

            His comprehension is poor, I doubt he has much arithmetic either, perhaps that’s why he is ” ex-Secondary Modern Teacher” ?

          • exSecondaryModernTeacher

            But academies and free schools ARE state schools. And 22% are not “failing”. Only about 2% of ALL state schools have been judged inadequate. This proportion includes inadequate academies and inadequate free schools.

            About 20% of ALL state schools (including academies and free schools) are satisfactory or judged to require improvement.

            • andagain

              Your post seemed to use “failing” as a synonym for “inadequate” of “requires improvement”. I simply followed suit.

              Incidentaly, if 2% of schools are judged inadequate, and 7 non-academies in Hunts constituancy are inadequate, then either his local authority runs 350 schools, or it runs far more inadequate ones than average. And yet if someone were to try to open a new school as an alternative to these inadequate ones, Hunt would complain.

              • exSecondaryModernTeacher

                andagain – you’re right about the confused meaning of “failing”. Ofsted says 78% of ALL state schools are now Good or Better. The implication is that 22% are therefore “failing”. But this isn’t so because around 20% are judged Requires Improvement or Satisfactory under the old system of inspection went Satisfactory meant “satisfied the criteria”.

                “Satisfactory” has been rebranded as “Requires Improvement”. This new definition has been applied retrospectively to schools previously judged Satisfactory. The Government then claims that all these schools are “failing” when in fairness this description can only be applied to those deemed Inadequate.

                To add to the confusion, Ofsted also says (depending where you look) that 70% of schools are now Good or Better. Perhaps we ought to split the difference and give a figure of 74%.

      • Andy

        He read what his bigotry wanted him to read. That’s the point.

  • Slim Jim

    Trunt? Is that rhyming slang, Fraser?

  • BuBBleBus

    Fraser, Tristram is not a native of Stoke. Not with a name like that he isn’t. Try Cambridge, schooled in London, nothing to do with Stoke at all. Supposed to be his adopted City, but that’s just Labour party machinations, he hasn’t been adopted by Stokies as far as I know. Why Why Why Tristram, I could see that he was no good for me, he stood there laughing, I felt the knife in my hand and

  • Andy


    Do read over the bloody thing before you post it !

    ‘the choice HIS parents exercised?’

    ‘As CoffeeHousers know, I HAVE been arguing for years – about the Swedish model with room-emptying conviction.’

  • telemachus

    178 Free Schools today
    300 projected for next year
    Stop this madness now
    Yes indeed Tristram needs to be concerned about failing LEA schools in Stoke
    But so should we all
    In Stoke and everywhere
    So Must Gove
    And put effort and resources into turning these schools round
    Instead of pursuing doctrinaire and dare I say it Fraseresque policies of plonking Free schools in areas where there is already excess provision
    In the hope that parents are wise enough to remove their charges from existing provision and put them in the free school
    Problem is that the at least 14% parents who are not engaged will leave their charges where they are to receive worse and worse education as the school withers over a number of years. Govian Educational Darwinism has been aptly coined for this

    • Andy

      Oh do shut up you dimwitted Fascist. Bog off back to the Fascist Guardian where you belong.

      • WSOS

        Presumably, since you need to be abusive, you have not intellectual argument to make.

    • kyalami

      Why throw good money after bad in failing schools? Madness.

      • telemachus

        Because that is in the best interests of a majority of our citizens

        • kyalami

          Because YOU say so? hahahahahahahahaha

      • Fatboy295

        Should we throw them at failing local authority controlled schools instead?

        • kyalami

          Absolutely not!

          • telemachus

            Problem with the current cabinet is that they are so steeped in elitist education from childhood they cannot see a solution that does not include creation of yet more elitist schools

            • kyalami

              Excellent! Every British child deserve an elite school!

              • Andy

                Privatise education then. The Fascists would hate that, so it must be the right thing to do.

              • mdj

                Didn’t Gove say he wanted every English school to be above average?

        • telemachus


          • Fatboy295

            Wouldn’t it be better to identify an resolve the problems instead?

            • telemachus

              Yes of course
              By resources I mean Gove and Team’s corporate expertise and intellectual effort

        • WSOS

          Resources are being leeched out of local authority schools to set up “free” schools in areas where they are not needed, rather than in places where there is a shortage of places. Where is the logic to this? Local authorities are not allowed to open new schools – so what do suggest for those without a school place?

    • Nicholas chuzzlewit

      Keep opening free schools please we need to scour the rancid filth of socialism from the British education system.

  • Makroon

    We can feel your angst Mr Nelson. The unfortunate fact is that Gove needs some early wins (a British bar-chart showing Swedish levels of success would be nice).
    If he doesn’t achieve this, the party of stunts and vested interests, will make hay – it’s what they do.