Why aren’t there more free schools? Halfway through this coalition government and we have just 72; we’d need 400 opening a year simply to keep pace with population growth. When I interviewed Michael Gove for our Christmas double issue, I asked him about all this. I didn’t put it in the magazine as this is a rather technical issue, but I thought some Coffee Housers may be interested. Gove said he expected free school project to follow Moore’s Law of semiconductors (ie, capacity doubling every two years).

Under this government, within a year of legislation passing, you’ve got a couple of dozen schools established and a year later, like Moore’s Law of Microchips, you have double the capacity entering the system, in fact that’s twice as fast as Moore’s Law.  I think it is an unprecedented level of new school creation.

That’s the optimistic case. But there is a major, government-created factor retarding the efforts of education entrepreneurs. One is the government ban on profit-seeking schools, which excludes the fastest-growing groups and leaves the project in the hands of charities. There’s only one profit-seeking school: IES in Brandon, Suffolk. It’s the first UK outpost of Sweden’s no1 school chain, so advanced they were teaching Cambridge University Exam Board’s International GCSE at a time when no English state schools entered pupils for the test.

But IES operate as a business: ie, they have shareholders who require a return on investment. The profit margin in the Swedish school sector is small, perhaps 3 per cent, so we’re not talking megabucks. We’re talking a principle: as the Swedes found, profit-seeking schools open in communities where new schools are needed most. The expand quickest, whereas charities tend to have a run a few flagship schools, which donors can visit.

Even the Swedish left now back profit-seeking schools, accepting that this model best promotes social justice, why are the British Conservatives squeamish? Why say to IES: thanks for coming to England, but forget about offering council estate kids another choice because we don’t like your profit motive?

Here’s what Gove had to say:-

What I said to them [IES] is the same argument that Andrew Adonis has made: we’ve created the opportunity for you to demonstrate what you can do and win the argument in the public square. You have an organisation that has been criticised, in some cases demonised, now running a state school.  I am utterly confident they will achieve amazing things but the way in which the case will be made for that organisation to expand on whatever terms is through its success.

I was talking to Arthur Brooks at the American Enterprise Institute when we were in Washington and he talked about the Rule of One.   The point that he made is you can try to win any argument you like through statistics. To say: ‘if you look at the trend over time and the concentration of independent and autonomous schools in Swedish municipalities, then it produces this’. Before for the debate to change more broadly, you need to say: visit this institution.  Come and look at this institution, how can you object to it?

I went to see IES in Suffolk a few weeks after it opened, and it is quite an extraordinary school with a head who reminds you that Britain has the best teachers in the world. One of the teachers told me he went there because he was sick of the state sector defeatist approach: that if the school’s in a bad neighbourhood, there’s nothing that can be done with the kids. IES Brandon is a brilliant new school, replacing a school the council earmarked for closure. It’s is an example of how community power can trump bureaucratic inertia – it ought to be something Tories should champion. But Gove believes it’s up to the schools, not the politicians, to change British public opinion on profit-making schools…

You or I could make the argument about why the profit motive depends far more upon satisfying parents and pupils than it does anyone else and therefore it will be the best driver of progress in education but people are going to be predisposed to believe that on the basis of a set of assumptions that they have about public policy and life more generally.

I put to him that this was a depressingly familiar line of argument:  the politician is simply there to be blown in the wind.  As a Secretary of State, Gove has the power to fast-forward this and allow profit-making schools then let the results speak for themselves at election time. I asked him: why doesn’t he just use this power?

 I hope it’s been the case that, over the last couple of years, we’ve tried to lead or steer public opinion in a variety of areas.  It seems to me here though that we have the perfect opportunity to allow the case to be made by a pioneer. The lesson of reform is that, sometimes, people are too cautious and then sometimes people overreach – and only hindsight will be able to tell us in which is which…. In the same way, if you look at the lessons of some reformers, some like the Swedish government that introduced free schools, didn’t quite realise how dramatic the change was going to be until afterwards.  Others knew that it was a big battle – Margaret Thatcher and trade union reform – but they ate the elephant in chunks.

The second factor retarding school expansion is HM Treasury’s refusal to allow existing state schools to borrow. On this, Gove had more to say – I’ll blog about that later.

Tags: Free schools, Michael Gove, Moore's Law