Monday, September 05, 2011

Nick Clegg speaks out on free schools and parenting

There are a fair few reasons I'm glad I live in Scotland. Apart from the fact that it's just a beautiful country and I feel completely at home here, there is a reasonably strong political consensus around the NHS and education. There is no appetite for the sorts of reforms proposed in the NHS down south, for example, and they will not be implemented up here.

Similarly, and thankfully, there are no free schools up here. The first schools, set up by faith groups, parents or charities, out of local authority control but funded by the state, open this week. Now, frankly, I'd rather have done away completely with free schools than had a referendum on AV, but you can't win everything in a coalition. However, it's clear that we have moderated the Tories' ideas on these. For a start, Nick has insisted that these schools should be non-profit making.  He's also talking about next year's free schools being opened in deprived areas to make sure that they don't just become middle class elitist enclaves which take only the brightest  schools.

I have to be honest and say that I'd not want to send my daughter to a school meeting in a hall or library when she could be in a well equipped proper school run by the local authority where she'd meet a good mix of kids. I also worry about free schools draining money from local education authorities. A lot of their overheads are still the same, regardless how many kids attend the school, but if their funding is reduced by a few of their kids going off to free schools, they still have to pay the same electricity bill, for example.

However, Nick announced today in a speech at a London school that:

  • From September 2013, all schools, including free schools and academies, will be allowed to prioritise applicants who qualify for the Pupil Premium.
  • Local authorities should remain a crucial lynchpin in the education system. Currently, academies are directly accountable to the Secretary of State for Education. The Government wants to ensure there is local democratic accountability for all schools. This could include maintaining the role for local authorities in areas such as deciding who new providers are and holding academies and free schools more sharply to account.
  • Excluded pupils will no longer be left behind. The Government will work with headteachers and local authorities to find ways for schools to take responsibility for finding alternative education, training or employment for pupils they exclude, and they could remain on the performance tables for the school that excludes them.
  • No school in the state sector , including free schools and academies, should ever be run for profit.
All of these things are about protecting the poorest, who have most to lose from a selective, elitist education system. I also like the idea that councils could have a greater role in approving free schools, bringing more accountability into the process. If they are doing their job properly, they'll make sure that these schools are sensibly located, not all in one area and across a mix of areas.

I always think it's a good idea to read the speeches in full, not just the soundbites you get on the news. You can read Nick's here.

Here's a few of the best bits:

His passion for social mobility is clear, and he's determined that we won't continue the pattern where we:
do the next generation a disservice by cursing them with our low expectations.
Defining the problem:
For liberals, education is meant to free individuals from the circumstances of their birth. But in our society school doesn’t always provide that kind of opportunity to fulfil your potential. Too often our education system ties children to their beginnings; it denies their parents choice; and it deepens social  divides.
His red lines on free schools:
 Let me be clear what I want to see from free schools. I want them to be available to the whole community – open to all children and not just the privileged few. I want them to be part of a school system that releases opportunity, rather than entrenching it. They must not be the preserve of the privileged few - creaming off the best pupils while leaving the rest to fend for themselves. Causing problems for and draining resources from other nearby schools. So let me give you my assurance: I would never tolerate that.
And of the importance of parenting:
 They know, like we all know, the importance of parental involvement in a child’s development. In his review of life chances, Frank Field found it to be the single most important factor in a child’s progress. Just last week we heard from Demos that children are much less likely to binge drink and get into trouble during adolescence. If they experience warmth in the home when they are young, and clear discipline as they grow up.
The fact is: parents hold their children’s fortunes in their hands. I know it’s not always easy. But, when you speak to teachers, they’re not making unrealistic requests. They aren’t demanding parents break the bank on private tutors, or top of the range computers. They aren’t insisting parents cut down on their working hours to spend more time at home. They just want mothers and fathers to get into simple, commonsense, inexpensive routines. Small changes that make the world of difference to their classrooms.
And typical honesty from Nick that will resonate with many parents:
  Do I get it right every day? No I don’t. But do I, like so many parents, want to do more? Yes I do. And I know parents up and down the country feel the same. Now is the time to do it. We expect teachers to do so much. And they invariably do. But we all have a part to play in transforming the nation’s schools.
And the final conclusion:
 Through choice and diversity – spread fairly – every community can have access to the schools they need.
I still feel deeply uneasy about free schools, because I think you need to have one body in each area thinking about providing the best possible state education for all the local children at a strategic level. However, I do think that Nick's made this better than it would have been if the Tories had been left to it.


Graeme Cowie said...

How can we, as liberals, oppose pluralism and choice in the provision of public services? Since when was the state some omniscient being that knows best how to educate the children in society?

Free schools are non-selective, not-for-profit, opportunities for non-state actors to have the chance to do things differently and do things better. As long as they adhere to the same diversity entrance requirements as local authority schools and meet pre-requisite requirements on the core curriculum and basic teaching standards, where is our cause to criticise them?

The Department for Education stats show that half of these new free schools are opening up in deprived areas. Just because they're being set up in non-purpose built premises, doesn't mean that it's not a cost-efficient way to provide a decent education. New school buildings are time-consuming at the planning stage, costly in the set-up costs, then the value of the premises is often greatly diminished in the event that the school needs to expand or move further down the line, making a future venture more expensive.

The profit issue is a legitimate one, but beyond the very basic political charge of state subsidy of private enterprise, I'm not convinced it is a terribly significant issue in practice. It's worth pointing out that even independent schools which don't currently receive any sort of state support are invariably registered charities and thus any "profit" made is reinvested in its entirety into new facilities and projects related to the school in question. Often surplus goes back into bursary support, which institutionalises fairer access.

You also mentioned the NHS and there are certainly issues with the enforcement of some parts of the new bill, but ultimately the principles are similar. It doesn't matter who provides health services as long as the method of funding is fair and comprehensive and the quality of care of a sufficiently high standard. If a for-profit organisation can do the same job as well or better and for less, then more power to them! Clearly we need to make sure adequate statutory protections are in place but the assumption that only the state can participate in the provision of a universal and comprehensive service doesn't strike me as an especially liberal one.

People make a lot of reference to the US health system as evidence against the merits of private enterprise in the health system. What they ignore is that the US system is substantively private in both funding and provision. The reason the coverage across the US is so bad is the funding mechanism and not who is actually carrying out the medical care! If you look at countries like Germany, the funding mechanism is an insurance system with a universal state safety net, but with independent providers dealing with the actual care-side. Whilst the Germans typically spend more on their health system than we do, they also have a much more integrated health strategy (despite less of a governmental role). Their obesity, smoking and alcohol problems are more promising than they are in the UK, for example.

In short, the public vs private debate is one that we should engage with more empirically. Both have a role and it seems overtly and at times unnecessarily political to dismiss one out of hand.

billgav said...

If he hadnt gone into coalition with torys there would be no free schools.Now I wonder what excuse he has for destroying NHS.I didnt vote libdem for this

Julie said...

Hi Caron,

Julie from Campaigning for Health here. Was wondering if you could give this a bit of publicity? We're trying to get all the Scottish MPs to turn up and vote in the Health and Social Care Bill.Thanks,


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