Free schools: splitting the class down the middle

So the time has come, Michael Gove has set out the formation of ‘Free Schools’ run by members of the public, charities or businesses, in houses, halls, shops or anywhere with a roof and a table, it would seem. While we have seen Greg Clark open the gates to the localist angle of the new coalition, this is the largest, more contentious segment of The Conservatives’ manifesto and vision and it is bound to define the relationship between the left and right fringes of the coalition government.

 Friday 18th June was the day that people could start sending in applications, which involves a complex web of tests, business plans and checks that seems to be contrary to The Conservatives’ wish to limit bureaucracy within the government. Like many aspects of modern policy making (European drinking hours for example), it is lifted from another country or region, this time Sweden, potentially ignoring the social, cultural and political differences that divide both countries. Cameron and Gove seem somewhat defiant that it is the concept of free schools alone that propels Sweden into the stratosphere it terms of infant literacy rates and standards of education.

This education policy seems to be formulated along the lines of “’I would like to see you do better!’ ‘Ok I will!’” and it opens up the question about who will take on this role. Alongside trusts, charities and businesses, individuals and parents will be allowed to start up a school and it has to be asked, who can afford to start a school without an income of their own? With Free Schools functioning along the ‘not for profit’ ideology, it is rather clear that this scheme is targeted not at the majority of parents but to the minority of wealthy, not-required-to earn parents. This, coupled with the potential halting of free school meals, set up as a pilot by Labour, a choice by The Tories that seems to function solely on a symbolic level rather than one of sound politics, will have many realising that Cameron’s Conservatives may not be  very different from Major’s or Thatcher’s.

As stated in The Telegraph, a recent study undertaken by The Institute of Education stated that the benefits of the Swedish Free School system were minimal, being advantageous to children of highly educated families, therefore excluding those from poorer backgrounds. Many will not be surprised. A Tory plan that benefits the wealthy, should we be surprised? But when we talk about a government we are not talking about a Conservative Government, but a Coalition Government and Clegg’s involvement is problematic. Nick Clegg’s choice to enter into this union cut him off from many elements to the left of his own party. To them he was bedding down next to the enemy for his own political gain. The parties represented the two binary opposites on the British political ladder, two positions where semblances of policy and ideologies are scarce if any.  He held the majority of his party together on the promise that he could draw The Tories nearer the centre, restraining their more extreme fringes. The IOE’s research damages this pledge; many will see The Tories pandering to their base unhindered, while Nick Clegg’s influence is cast aside as unwanted baggage.

Standing beside Cameron as he sets out this policy, that many will see as unfairly balanced along class lines, could poison the Liberal Democrat’s chances come five years. Nick Clegg’s promise to rein in the extremist policy needs to materialise, needs to be visible and only then can this union that he jumped in to appear to be fair and right for the country and his party. The outcome of this education gamble could fail and, while many will take solace in the fact that it could sabotage The Conservative’s chance to hold on to Downing Street, it could also upturn the Liberal Democrat’s own leadership plans. What we could see is a rare left/right sweep that leaves the playing field wide open come 2015.


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