Invigorating, that’s probably the best word for Policy Exchange’s event on free schools
this morning. Right from Sir Michael Wilshaw’s opening address — which set out the reasons why he, as headteacher of Mossbourne Academy, is optimistic about education reform — to
Michael Gove’s longer, more involved speech, this was all about celebrating and promoting the new freedoms that teachers are enjoying. There were some specifics about the schools that are opening,
and the numbers of them, but very little of it was new. For the first time in a week, Gove wasn’t announcing
policy, but instead referring back to it.
Which isn’t to say that this was an ornamental occasion — far from it. Sir Michael’s "four reasons for optimism" were, by themselves, pretty noteworthy. In summary, they were: the
rapid expansion of the academies programme; the creation of greater diversity in schooling to respond to parental demands; the wildfire spread of entrepreneurialism among headteachers; and the
growing number of good teachers. He faced the same opposition to academies eight years ago as free schools are facing now, he said — before urging Gove onwards.
Then there was Gove’s speech, which had two emphases that caught my ear. The first was
that placed on Britain’s standing in the world, and its decline against Eastern economies such as China. Much as he did in his interview with the Times at the weekend ("if we don’t address
[our education system] we will all end up being employed by Chinese billionaires"), Gove highlighted the country’s skills deficit in relation to its competitors. His reforms are ever more
being presented as of economic, as well as of moral, worth.
And the second emphasis was on free schools themselves. Although Gove mentioned the existing state schools that are converting to academies, he dwelt much longer on those schools that are being set
up from scratch by parents, teachers and charity groups. The unwritten message was clear: although the growth of academies has been extraordinary, the government is still firmly behind free schools
as a distinct entity. It was Gove reaffirming the faith of the Invitation to Government days,
as it were. He relished in pointing out that "over a dozen" free schools will open this September, against the expectations of his detractors.
As for Labour’s response, in a Twitter spat over free schools Andy Burnham has just said that he is against
"publicly-funded schools employing unqualified teachers & opting out of the National Curriculum." I wonder whether that includes the 250 academies established under Labour, and which
were free to opt out of elements of the curriculum even then. The confusions continue.