In the news today, Labour announced there would be no more free schools opened by a future Labour government, but existing free schools could stay open, says the party’s education spokesman, Stephen Twigg. The shadow education secretary also wants all state schools in England to have the rights given to academies. Mr Twigg says he wants to end a “fragmented, divisive” school system.
In a major policy speech on Monday, Mr Twigg has taken a significant step towards setting out the opposition’s schools policy. Free schools, set up by parents and other groups, would no longer be created under Labour. The more than 80 free schools already open and those in the pipeline would continue to be funded, says Mr Twigg, but beyond that point new schools would have to be created as academies.
Under his blueprint, academies and local authority schools would have similar levels of autonomy. Mr Twigg described the plans using a phrase associated with Tony Blair’s early years in office: “Standards not structures.” Mr Twigg argues against an “incoherent” and “bureaucratic” system in which different types of school have different levels of flexibility.
“We know that giving schools more freedom over how they teach and how they run and organise their schools can help to raise standards,” the shadow education secretary told his audience at the RSA in London.
“So why should we deny those freedoms to thousands of schools? All schools should have them, not just academies and free schools. A school should not have to change its structure just to gain freedoms.”
Since Labour left office in 2010, more than half of secondary schools in England have become self-governing academies, and rather than reversing this tide, Mr Twigg says that all schools should share similar degrees of autonomy. Academies, state-funded schools which operate outside of local authority control, can set their own curriculum and decide their own school terms and the length of school days. They also have greater financial independence and can buy in services such as technology. Rather than turn back from the model of school autonomy, a Labour government would accelerate more schools in that direction.
Pay limits are also referred to in today’s speech. Academies are able to set their own pay and conditions for their teaching staff, a power that has been controversial with the teachers’ unions. Labour is not proposing that this power should be extended to all schools, arguing that the current national pay framework should not be broken up. There would also be a more significant role for local authorities, with Mr Twigg arguing they should be able to intervene in academies and free schools, as well as local authority schools, when there are concerns about standards.
Would you believe who dismisses this idea? Who else but Michael Gove, probably the most hated person in Britain right now. He goes as far to say that, “Labour’s policy on free schools is so tortured they should send in the UN to end the suffering,” I think we can all get a deep sense of hypocritical comment here.
A Department for Education source also dismissed Labour’s policy. It states that, “Labour policy on free schools is still confused. On the one hand Twigg says he will end the free school programme, but on the other he says he would set up ‘parent-led and teacher-led academies’ – free schools under a different name.”
The government source also accused Labour of confusion over what powers should be devolved to schools.
What do you think about these free schools? Are they having a positive impact? Should we have more or less of them?