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Why Tristram Hunt is wrong about free schools

3 April 2014

10:09 AM

3 April 2014

10:09 AM

‘I’ve come to exorcise you lot,’ said Tristram Hunt cheerfully, as he turned up to deliver the keynote speech in The Spectator’s schools conference today. He had come to explain why free schools, a project this magazine proudly supports, are going wrong. His speech was as elegant and clever as it was wrong, which is why it’s worth studying. We’ll post the audio of his speech soon, but here’s my take.

Hunt started by claiming the free school system is in meltdown, because a few of them have failed. He mentioned IES Breckland in Suffolk. Then Al-Madinah free school in Derby – so bad, he said, that Ofsted had to invent a new category of dysfunction. The Discovery New School in Crawley has closed. So surely, this shows that Gove’s project is in decline?

Quite the reverse. The whole idea is to allow bad schools to fail. Hunt quoted me saying that of you set up 300 businesses, 30 would fail. A rather modest estimate, he said. But allowing such failure would be writing down £5.5 billion. And he asked:

‘Can the British taxpayer afford such an enormous liability when it is explicitly predicated on the ground of organic waste? In the Labour Party, our answer has to be no. We believe in innovation, and will encourage it.’

I have no idea where he got his £5.5 billion figure from, but what is the cost of allowing failing schools to keep going? It is paid not by central government, but by the children who are forced to stay there. It is paid in their stymied life chances. I’d argue that identifying failing schools, and forcing them to take action or close, is one of the best things about Gove’s reforms. The American charter schools only started to pull ahead of state schools when they became more aggressive about closing bad ones.

Unqualified teachers

A member of the audience told Hunt how much he appreciated two brilliant, but unqualified teachers at his schools. What would happen to them under Labour? Hunt said, in effect, that if they were good they’d have no problem gaining the union-approved Qualified Teacher Status. And if they didn’t? Would they be sacked? His response:-

‘After a very long period of time, if they’re not interested in proving their skills, I don’t think there’s a place for them in English schools I’m focused on pupils rather than teachers who don’t want to – you know.’

We know. We know that Hunt isn’t talking about teachers ‘improving skills’ – if they’re in the classroom, and are effective, there’s not much they can learn from going to Big Brother’s QTS system. It’s odd to hear Hunt, whose own private school used ‘unqualified’ teachers, toe the party line like this.


Hunt also devoted much of his speech to Sweden, saying how badly it did in the latest PISA report, the world league table of education. No other country had such slide, he said, so surely free schools fail? He did mention that the vast majority of   Swedish pupils are educated in its crisis-struck council-run schools. When the PISA survey was conducted in 2012, free schools educated just 12.6 per cent of Swedish pupils.

Also, let’s take Hunt’s curious idea that profit-seeking free schools are leading the decline in Sweden. The below graph shows school results for three groups. The first is council-run schools. Next is all free schools. And the third is the largest single chain of (profit-seeking) free schools: IES, whose Breckland school has had some problems.

I put this to Hunt, who had no answer. He muttered something about my ‘intimate knowledge of the Swedish catchment areas’. Not quite – it’s basic research, which he ought to have done. The theme of his speech was that free schools are failing in Sweden, which he seems to have based on the failure of state schools in Sweden.

So as Mr Hunt goes back to do more homework, I’d like to recommend this OECD report into why Sweden slid so much (pdf). The problem is in the rural areas, which don’t have competition from free schools. It’s tied up with Sweden council schools’ lax approach to discipline, which drove parents into despair – and into the corridors of free schools.


In the Q&A afterwards, Hunt dropped in that schools improved under Labour because they spent so much money. Again, he needs to do more research. That report I link to above makes clear that Swedish school spending is the 10th highest in the OECD – so let’s dispense with the idea (advanced by Gordon Brown) that cash matters.

Study after study proves no correlation between cash and outcome in schools. The below study maps cash (which wildly varies in English schools from £5k to£10k per pupil) against outcomes. There is no correlation:

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 10.22.00And if you don’t believe the Deloitte report? Then look at the conclusion of this OECD study. Here’s an extract:

‘There is no clear relationship between spending on education and performance, even after accounting for differences in purchasing power. In this group of countries, it is common to find substantially different levels of spending per student, yet similar mathematics performance. For example, while the Slovak Republic spends $53 160 per student, considerably less than Sweden, and the United States spends $115 961, considerable more, students in these countries perform around the same level as students in Sweden.

‘Trend data from 2003 to 2012 show that there is no relationship between increases in expenditure on education and changes in performance, either among high-spending or low-spending countries. Mexico, for example, is among the countries and economies with the greatest improvement in average mathematics performance between 2003 and 2012, but its level of expenditure remained stable between 2001 and 2011. Similar improvements in average performance were observed in Poland, where per- student cumulative expenditure nearly doubled during the period. In Sweden, expenditure per student increased by $25 911 between 2001 and 2011, close to what was observed in Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Poland and Norway.’

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