Michael Gove is naturally having some fun with Stephen Twigg’s schools speech. The Education Secretary has responded to Twigg’s plan for ‘parent academies’ by saying:
‘Labour’s policy on free schools is so tortured they should send in the UN to end the suffering. On the one hand Stephen Twigg says he will end the free school programme, but on the other he says he would set up ‘parent-led’ and ‘teacher-led academies’ – free schools under a different name. As Andrew Adonis has said this morning, “free schools are academies without a predecessor school”. When is a free school not a free school? When Stephen Twigg is trying to appease the teaching unions.
‘Stephen Twigg also says it’s a ‘scandal’ to set up new schools in areas where existing schools are failing and parents have no choice. We don’t think it’s a scandal, we think it’s vital. Too often the poorest families are left with the worst schools.’
Although the jibe about sending in the UN is entertaining and classic Gove, his strongest point is on school choice. Labour believes that new schools should only get approval in areas where there is a shortage of school places. Twigg made a number of references to this in his speech today, saying:
‘Under Michael Gove’s policy, millions have been spent opening schools in areas with a surplus of places, while children elsewhere face a shortage of places. This not just wasteful, it is a scandal. It should be the first duty of any education secretary to ensure that every child has a place at one of their local schools.’
This is initially an alluring argument. Why create more school places if there already are enough in a local area? But it doesn’t pay heed to the possibility that the reason parents might be applying to set up a free school is not that they’ve got nothing better to do, but because the available places are in bad schools. Bureaucrats are happy if schools are full, even if they’re bad schools, but that means parents have no choice over where to send their children unless they have a bulging wallet. You can choose a high-performing school in your area if you have the means to pay for private education, but if you’re on a low income, then forget about being ambitious for your children: you’ll get what the state gives you.
If a bad school loses pupils to a good free school set up by popular demand from parents, that’s competition in action, not a scandal. It would no longer be the case that the state knows best by filling those bad school places with children, regardless of whether their parents want them to attend that poorly-performing school or not. Instead, schools would have to work to keep up.
It’s funny, because as I blogged earlier, Twigg is just the latest Labour shadow to claim he’s adopting localism as one of his priorities. But his fear of school choice suggests he is more interested in a brand of localism that devolves power from the Secretary of State to local government, rather than to parents. It will mean that ‘parent academies’ only spring up where bureaucrats want them, not parents. That’s fine if you believe councillors and officials have a better idea of what’s best for a child than their parent, but it’s a rum kind of localism.