Free schools good, profit motive better

I went on the BBC News Channel yesterday afternoon defending free schools against the charge that they would lower standards and lead to social segregation.

First, it is worth re-capping what the ‘free schools agenda’ is all about. Essentially, it has two purposes. The main one is to increase the supply of good school places by letting independent providers set up new schools, and receive state funding on a per pupil basis. The idea is that this allows parents to exercise a meaningful choice over where their child is educated. That drives schools to compete for pupils, which increases accountability and drives up standards. The second purpose of the free schools agenda is to give schools greater freedom from bureaucratic interference: let them innovate, let them focus on teaching the child in front of them, and stop thinking the man in Whitehall always knows best.

School choice may be a radical idea, but it isn’t a new one, and it has worked where it’s been tried – most famously in Sweden, that well-known socialist nirvana. Moreover, it is hard to deny that the British education system is in need of serious reform: despite the fact that spending has practically doubled in real terms over the last decade, Britain has tumbled down the international league tables. Academic research has even suggested that 17 percent of British 16-19 year olds are illiterate, while 22 percent of them are functionally innumerate – a shocking indictment of a failing system.

Moreover, the claims made by the critics of free schools do not hold water. They suggest that free schools will promote inequality, but this has not been the experience in Sweden or the US. In fact, American evidence suggests the opposite: that privately operated schools can be better integrated, since attendance is not as closely linked to where one lives as it is in the state sector. Indeed, it is worth remembering that our current schools system is deeply unequal precisely on these grounds – in many cases it amounts to little more than segregation by house price. Live in a nice area, and chances are you’ll get to attend a fairly decent school; live on a sink estate, and you probably won’t be so lucky. Free schools offer an escape route.

At this stage, however, it is worth making a point about the profit motive – which Nick Clegg today ruled out of bounds vis-à-vis free schools. The trouble with not allowing for-profit companies to run free schools is that it dramatically narrows the pool of potential school operators. Fewer new schools will be set up, and those that are established are more likely to be concentrated in relatively affluent areas, where parents have the time and the ability to push for them. By contrast, if we were to allow profit-making free schools, we would get far more of them, and see more of them being set up in deprived areas – where both the demand and the need for them is greatest. Whatever Nick Clegg says, the profit motive in education could easily be a force for social mobility, not against it.

Finally, a point on standards: there simply isn’t any convincing evidence to suggest that free schools will provide a lower standard of education than state comprehensives, or that standards at those state comprehensives will suffer because of the existence of free schools. True, part of the rationale behind school choice is that irredeemably bad schools should go out of business. But that is surely as it should be: a system where good schools can grow and be replicated, and where bad schools are not kept interminably on life support, will lead to standards being driven up across the board.

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