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Full text: Tristram Hunt’s speech to the Spectator schools conference

3 April 2014

11:42 AM

3 April 2014

11:42 AM

Free Schools, For-profit Schools and the Swedish Slide

Thank you. It is, as ever, a great pleasure to speak from the platform of England’s oldest continuously published magazine.

And especially so on education, which has always been one of its uppermost concerns.

Indeed, it was from these pages in November 1711, some seven months after the first edition, that your founder, Joseph Addison, offered one of the most memorable quotes about the nature of education. He said:

“I consider an human soul without education like marble in the quarry, which shews none of its inherent beauties till the skill of the polisher fetches out the colours, makes the surface shine, and discovers every ornamental cloud, spot and vein that runs through the body of it.”

Which may or may not be the first, or the last time you hear that quote today…

Of course last time I spoke to you, I was collecting an award for ‘Best Newcomer’ at your Parliamentarian of the Year Awards.

And with it sits an accompanying note from the current editor of this organ, entreating once more about the merits of the Free School programme.

But I am afraid I have come here today to do precisely the opposite – and to spell out the Labour Party’s opposition to the government’s Free Schools Programme.

Many of the reasons for this are entirely pragmatic and even ardent champions of the Programme would surely admit that the last few months have been damaging to its credibility.

The regressing literacy and general ‘disarray’ at IES Breckland in Suffolk.

Not much chance of social mobility if pupils cannot learn to read.

All sorts of mysterious financial goings on at the Kings Science Academy in Bradford.

And in the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby a school in such difficulties that Ofsted had practically to invent a new ‘dysfunctional’ category in order to place it within its framework.

As the National Audit Office has said: “the primary factor in decision-making has been opening schools at pace, rather than maximising value for money”.

Which perhaps explains how the likes of Al-Madinah got over the threshold, as well as highlighting the monumental waste to the taxpayer as a consequence.

So let’s forget the broader educational arguments for a moment – this is an initiative that has been run with a staggering and insouciant incompetence, one which should disappoint its followers every bit as much as its critics.

Such administrative sloppiness is, in part, the consequence of centralising the oversight of schools within the Department of Education.

You simply cannot effectively monitor 5,000 schools from a desk in Whitehall – not least if John Nash is behind it.

That is why this spring, David Blunkett will announce the results of his review of our schools system, which we hope will monitor standards more effectively, make schools more accountable to parents, cut down on waste, introduce a more transparent way of commissioning new school places and help to stimulate local collaboration and innovation.

However, in my speech today I also what to take on the philosophical arguments behind the Free School programme and – in its place – outline the Labour Party’s alternative.

What is more, I contend that it is in fact the Government’s Free Schools programme that is intellectually inconsistent because of its failure to embrace an absolutely vital element of the Friedmanite argument behind the experiment: the profit-motive.


However, first I want to run through a practical example in order to illustrate our problems with the Free Schools programme.

Because tomorrow, as children across the country break up for the Easter holiday, one school will shut its doors for good.

That is of course the Discovery Free School in Crawley, one of the initial wave of 24 free schools that opened in 2011.

In fairness, it is a relatively small school with around 70 primary pupils, yet the closure could still cost the taxpayer as much as £2m in waste.

But perhaps the true cost of the failure only becomes apparent when you consider the impact from the perspective of parent and pupil.

And recently I received a letter from one such disgruntled parent, a Ms. Emily Leppenwall.

She writes:

“Having been a free school parent from the policy’s inception, I can categorically say that the notion of a ‘free school’ is the definition of ‘playing politics’ if ever there was one. Unfortunately it has been at the expense of my children’s education.

She then goes on to allege that it was the Education Secretary himself who approved the application and that “from that decision onwards, a couple with no formal teaching qualifications, or experience in running a school were given a budget of £500,000 to play school with”.

Despite, she suggests, “their lack of experience and ineptitude being palpable from the beginning”.

And from that point on the school was left “largely unmonitored” even thought it was “inevitable that a storm would brew”.

She concludes:

“No free school is safe. I expect to see many more in the coming years fail spectacularly and close, failing the children they were set up to serve. And when they do fail they pose a logistical re-schooling nightmare. Not to mention the years of wasted of public money.”

Now we in the Labour Party can understand how all this stress and disruption might have a detrimental impact upon a child’s education.

But there is little in any of it that should trouble advocates of the Free Schools programme.

Indeed, they should positively welcome such news, for it is precisely this Schumpeterian ‘fly or fail’ creative destruction that is its intellectual justification.
Make no mistake: this is a free market approach red in tooth and claw and the true believer maintains that just as businesses are subject to the law of the jungle in the private sphere, so should schools be in the public.

The editor of this magazine is one such believer. In a recent response to an article of mine he suggested “if you set up 300 new businesses, you’d expect at least 30 to hit trouble”.

Arguably, given start-up success rates, a rather conservative estimate.

Yet were this competitive schools landscape writ as large as its proponents surely desire, that estimate of failure would see the tax-payer writing down a bare minimum of £5.5bn.

And that figure assumes that ‘non-failing’ schools go on to sustain their success as well as ignoring the extra costs usually involved in getting any new venture off the ground.

So the question we have to ask ourselves is can the British taxpayer really afford such an enormous liability on an untested and ideological strategy of school improvement when it is explicitly predicated on a certain amount of waste?
In the Labour Party our answer, particularly in such difficult economic circumstances, has to be a resounding no.

We believe in autonomy – that is why we will extend freedoms enjoyed by academies to all schools.

We believe in innovation and will encourage it in all schools, whilst our parent-led academy programme will ally the social entrepreneurship of parents, teachers and innovators who want to set up new schools, to the local need for places.

And we believe in competition too – the competition of esteem that is a natural human impulse and in a week or so will, I feel certain, propel Mo Farah to victory over Ed Balls and all-comers over 26.2 miles of the London Marathon.

Outstanding leadership, excellent teaching, networks of collaboration and partnership such as the London Challenge – we simply believe there are far more effective ways to improve performance that work with existing resources and avoid the unnecessary chaos we will see in Crawley tomorrow.


However, it is a tad misleading of me to suggest that Fraser Nelson entirely endorses this wasteful school system.

Indeed, I am doing him something of a disservice. Because there is one way you can mitigate some of the financial risk to the taxpayer.

That is, simply, do not take all of it on.

Instead, you incentivize investment in new schools from the private sector by implementing a voucher-based funding system and removing the regulation stipulating that schools cannot be run for-profit.

This of course is the Swedish way and it is a model beloved of all true free marketeer educationalists.

And as well as Fraser, it used to count our very own Education Secretary as one of its champions.

“We have seen the future in Sweden and it works” he told the Daily Mail back in 2008.

“After 15 years, 900 schools have been created and standards have been driven up. If it can work there it can work here”.

Now, nobody could possibly argue that the Swedish model was not radical. Expansion was rapid – as of last year nearly a quarter of their secondary age pupils attended one of the publically owned, privately run ‘free schools’, half of which are owned or part-owned by private equity firms.

And truly this a system that fully embodies a ‘fly or fail’ competitive culture – as parents of the 10,000 pupils at the private equity owned JB Education found to their cost last year, when the chain went bust.

However, in the face of overwhelming international evidence, the idea that these schools have raised standards seems almost impossible to sustain.

Indeed, the scale of Sweden’s slide on the OECD’s PISA measurements is truly staggering.

In the latest batch, no other nation recorded as big a drop from their 2009 score in reading or maths. And only Malaysia’s performance in science stopped Sweden from taking a most unwanted clean sweep.

Taking the long view hardly helps matters. In 2003 Sweden was ranked 17th in the mathematics global league table. Now it is ranked 38th.

In reading it was ranked 8th. Now it is ranked 36th.

And it has fallen from 15th to 38th in science.

Furthermore, this slump in performance is backed up by other, less well known metrics. In both the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study the story is the same.
And the evidence published last year by Skolverket, the Swedish National Education Agency, shows that inequality is increasing too.

So, it does seem odd to aspire for a model here, which we already outperform.
As that otherwise avid advocated of free markets, the Economist magazine, has argued:

“Sweden is now one of the few countries to show both worse results and more inequality. Free school choice is a contributing factor.”

I could hardly have put it better myself.

However, I am sure it will not surprise you to learn that we in the Labour Party do not take seriously the case in favour of for-profit schooling.

We find it difficult to stomach the idea that money which would be better spent on classroom equipment, innovative teacher training or extra-curricular facilities, should instead be spent on shareholder dividends.

Moreover, as I have said, we do not believe that an aggressively competitive, ‘fly or fail’ approach is necessary to raise school standards.

All I do mean to highlight is that for those of you who do believe in the free schools model, the government’s Free School programme is surely an intellectual half-way house; a messy compromise that does not display the courage of its convictions and make the case for a proper free-market, profit-motivated system.

Because the truth is that without that element – it is difficult to see how the Free Schools Programme can ever go hand in hand with a pragmatic, fiscally conservative approach to guaranteeing good value for the taxpayer.

But if we reject that competitive model – how would the Labour Party raise school standards?

First, we would ensure schools come together in networks of challenge and collaboration, working together to raise standards and root out underperformance.

We saw the success of this approach through the London Challenge model, and we want to build on those experiences across England. Because the challenge now is not so focused on the capital: it is in quite areas of under-performance from Norfolk to East Berkshire, the Isle of Wight to Stoke-on-Trent.

Second, we would give outstanding head-teachers in all schools the freedom to innovate and make decisions about what is best for their pupils.

Third, we would make sure that highly qualified teachers are trusted to awaken the passion for learning that a strong society and a growing economy so desperately needs.

Because the Labour Party strongly believes that raising the standard of teaching in our schools and colleges represents the surest way to improve our children’s attainment.

As educationalists from Sir Michael Barber and Andreas Schleicher from the OECD have all argued, no education system can possibly exceed the quality of its teachers.

Yes, innovation, accountability and autonomy – underpinned by safeguards and minimum standards – matter enormously.

But what the evidence clearly shows is that it is teacher quality that makes the biggest difference in schools.

What is more, its importance is even more pronounced when it comes to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Research from the Sutton Trust has shown that without social capital or parental input to fall back upon, teacher quality can mean as much as year’s difference to the learning progress of disadvantaged children.

Therefore, my first priority as Education Secretary in a Labour Government would be to make sure we have a world class teacher in every classroom, studio or workshop – a highly qualified, self-motivating and dedicated professional workforce that reflects and enquires about its own practice.

So as well as ending the employment of unqualified teachers and making sure that initial teacher training is preparing teachers properly for the pressure of the classroom, we will expect teachers to undertake regular professional development throughout their careers and revalidate their expertise in order to keep their skills and knowledge up to date.

And we would look to create a framework of new career pathways for teachers, so that teachers who want to build their expertise in a particular subject or pedagogical practice are given the opportunity to progress in their careers whilst staying in the classroom.

In Shanghai, all teachers have a teaching qualification and undergo 240 hours of professional development within the first five years of teaching.

Meanwhile in Singapore, all teachers are entitled to 100 hours of CPD every year.

Those are the countries we should be looking towards – the best performing jurisdictions in the world.

Yet instead we are that the answer to all our education woes is a Swedish model that has contributed to declining standards, rising inequality and an unprecedented slide down international league tables.

It pains me to end on the magazine of Bagehot rather than Addison, but let me again turn to the Economist:

New education stars can emerge and old ones fade fast. But the broader lesson may be simple, if brutal. Successful countries focus fiercely on the quality of teaching and eschew zigzag changes of direction or philosophy.

Ladies and Gentleman, if we win in 2015 that is exactly what Labour will do.

Thank you.

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