Clegg’s win on ‘free schools’ start of the battle to save state education

The vetoing of Tory plans for free schools to become profit-making marks out coalition dividing lines and the ideological battle over education at the next election.

Today’s reports Nick Clegg has successfully vetoed Tory plans for free schools to become profit-making mark out both the current battles within the coalition and the ideological battle over education policy at the next election.

The Guardian today claims Tory education secretary Michael Gove had hoped to allow free schools to make profits in the government’s second term and quotes a supporter of Gove as saying:

“Gove has never had an ideological issue with profit in schools, whereas Clegg is ruling it out for ideological reasons.”

Meanwhile, Fraser Nelson writes in the Spectator that some of David Cameron’s allies are:

“…keen to fit rocket boosters under the free schools programme – and that means including profit-seeking groups like Cognita and International Free Schools.”

If Nick Clegg does indeed have a ‘victory’ in blocking the proposal it will be one of the deputy prime minister’s most significant achievement in office. More significantly, the cat is now out of the bag on free schools: the Tories do see free schools as a vehicle to turn schooling into business. What is surprising is that people ever doubted this.

For free schools to be anything other than an expensive fad, with just a handful of schools run by charities, parents or as publicity seeking exercises for the likes of Toby Young, it is logical they would have to become profit-making. Michael Gove’s free schools policy was based on the free schools programme in Sweden, where the government’s initial plan was that free schools would either be set up by parents or charities.

This created only a small number of new schools. The growth in school numbers came when businesses were allowed to provide schooling on a for-profit basis. According to academic research, five out of every six free schools have made profits of over half a billion krona (£40m). Meanwhile, two companies – the Internationella Engelska Skolan and Kunskapsskolan – have come to dominate the Swedish free schools market.

The uber right-wing Adam Smith Institute has at least been candid enough to argue that free schools won’t work unless they become commercialised.

In a paper published in April urging the government to lift its ban on businesses setting up free schools, it said:

“While the enthusiasm of not-for-profit innovators was important at the beginning, that idealism and drive petered out over time, giving way to more sustainable commercial interests.”

The concept of free schools established by parents or charities is, as it stands, questionable. There is little academic research suggesting they have dramatically increased education standards in Sweden. Most evidence suggests children from well-educated families gain the most. Surprise, surprise. Even then, though, the improvements are minor, while the effect on children from families with a low level of education is non-existent.

Free school students are no more likely to go on to university than students from the state sector.

However, allowing free schools to become operated by businesses as profit-making businesses themselves is the thin end of the wedge. The iniquity is that schools would be receiving government money for each student and if a school got into financial difficulties and the operating company chose to close it, the state would be expected to pick up the tab. Any profits would, needless to say, go to private shareholders.

Like the bank crisis, allowing free schools to be profit-making would mean privatising the profit and socialising the loss.

But the Tories clearly see free schools as a ruse to create another tier of the private sector in education and will attempt to create hundreds of free schools seeking profits out of government money if they win the next election. Progressives across the UK should line up to campaign for schools to be about teaching children and not about profits.

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