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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.

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