The schools revolution should be above ideology

Anthony Browne
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A little revolution is quietly starting around the country this week – but its long-term effects will be profound. In the face of opposition from teachers’ unions and left wing campaigners, 24 “free schools” set up by charities, teachers or parents are opening their doors to pupils. They are state funded, but free from local authorities, able to set their own curriculum, and employ who they want.

Opponents have denounced it is an experiment, gambling with children’s future. They have delighted in the fact that some have been undersubscribed, although many were massively oversubscribed.

Critics have rounded on the education secretary Michael Gove, saying 24 is too small a number to make a difference. Local authorities complain about the effect it has on their funding. The Liberal Democrats have made clear they support the schools so long as those who run them don’t make a profit.

All of which is putting partisan beliefs above the interests of children. Those in the best position to decide – parents – would only send their children to a new school if they judged that it would provide a better education than that given by the local education authority.

We have been tinkering with reforms of education for half a century, and too many children are still let down – it is time to be bolder. Given how long it takes to set anything up, launching 24 in a year is actually breakneck speed, and a tribute to the energy and enthusiasm of teachers, parents and charities. That number is set to rise sharply in the next couple of years.

Some schools won’t work out, but most will, and the successful ones will grow. Opposition from the vested interests of teachers’ unions and local authorities will wilt as they see parents voting with their children.

Those who oppose the opening of these new schools won’t dare risk the wrath of parents by closing them down: these free schools are here to stay.

Which leaves the question of the profit motive. More important than education is water, food, shelter and health – and water companies, food companies, housing companies and drugs companies all make profits.

There is a lot of evidence that the profit motive, in education and elsewhere, raises standards, increases supply, and spreads best practice.

Isn’t banning free schools from making profits putting ideology above the interests of children?

Anthony Browne is the former director of Policy Exchange