Sunday, October 13, 2013

Tristram Hunt has a long way to go on free schools

When the  Labour MP Tristram Hunt described free schools as a "vanity project for yummy mummies in West London" I cringed. Here he was, a genuine intellectual newly elected to Westminster, and he obviously thought he had to talk in this ridiculous way to ingratiate himself with his party in case he appeared too 'posh' - as they would childishly put it.

Then there was the hypocrisy.

Labour does approve of parental choice in education, as Jonathan Wallace reminded us the other day:
Gateshead Council's all-Labour cabinet met yesterday and at one point it wandered off into a discussion about failing schools and parental choice. I sat at the back of the room as an observer and listened as Cllr Mick McNestry talked about how Highfield Primary School, seven years ago, had not performed well, but since then had turned itself around to become, according to Ofsted, an excellent school and was now oversubscribed. Parent had "voted with their feet", according to Mick. 
This was followed by a discussion in which some of the "socialist" comrades let rip about people exercising parental choice by moving their children to better performing schools. "Socialist" Catherine Donovan swung the boot the hardest at the right of people to choose for themselves and their children what they should and should not do. She raised the prospect of ending parental choice by forcing children to go to the local community school to ensure they all stayed open.
But here was Hunt, who attended University College School (current fees £5720 per term), ridiculing the idea of choice when he had done so well out of it himself.

Time moves on, and Hunt is now Labour's shadow education secretary. This morning he was on television assuring us that:
"If you are a group of parents, social entrepreneurs and teachers interested in setting up a school in areas where you need new school places, then the Labour government will be on your side."
I don't think we supporters of choice and innovation in the state sector should rejoice just yet, because the key phrase here may well be "in areas where you need new school places".

As I wrote back in 2006 when Labour was in power:
The policy of not allowing new school in areas where there is surplus capacity is ludicrous. Surplus capacity will tend to exist in areas where the schools are bad, because parents there are more likely to pay to send their children to independent schools or to make more effort to work the state system to get them into schools further away. 
As things stand, the government will allow new schools only in areas where parents are perfectly happy with the existing provision.
So, while I am pleased to see Tristram Hunt backing away from his earlier silly language on the subject, it remains to be seen whether Labour has yet embraced choice and innovation in the state sector.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Parental choice as far as it really exists may be a social good but so is social cohesion and it seems that every education reform introduced in the last 30 years has been an attempt to entrench rather than resist the sort of class, racial & religious segregation that tends result when choice is presented as the ultimate social good.
I'm also very suspicious of the terms failing school & excellent school and the blame and praise culture that are associated with these words. My experience is that often in failing schools there are dedicated teachers doing their best to provide an education to children who even before they enter school are disabled by poverty and the social upheaval & distress that accompany it. The reverse of this is that excellent schools are those where the majority of pupils from "hardworking families" arrive well fed and eager to learn.
When I started teaching, before Mrs Thatcher had shown us the light and the way, schools with a deprived intake had extra funding, rather like the pupil premium. If extra taxpayer's money is to be found & you know how people like to avoid tax, to fund surplus places then the knock on effect to existing school budgets particularly those that are struggling with social hardship may well be profound.
As I live in Guardianland, I am often disquieted by stories where parental choice is overridden by the DfE as they know best when a school should convert to an Academy. So clearly choice is not always the ultimate decider when it comes to educational policy.