Hidden amongst noisy coalition politics are a handful of policy goals whose effects will linger longer in the sphere of public debate than the scandal du jour. Of these, the free schools programme is remarkably fortunate. It has thus far escaped a watering down, where it might have become a shapeless puddle, completely lacking in direction or purpose. Yet, with the final applications for free school-status having rolled in last month, policy-makers and politicians must be careful not only to ensure that the programme is not derailed out of fear of decentralisation, but also to acknowledge that it is insufficient to solve the problem of declining standards.
The potential benefit from the free schools programme is two-fold: on a micro level, parents dissatisfied with the state-funded education available to them are now able to fix the problem for themselves, and other parents will benefit from the resulting greater choice of schools. On a macro, and less publicised level, the allocation of funding within the free school and academy system according to student numbers will subject these schools to market forces.
In time, the worst-performing schools must either improve, or drop out of the system altogether, and be replaced. It is on this macro level that the programme most risks a derailment. Introducing a whole subsector of state employees to the consequences of poor performance (permanent dismissal for incompetence is almost unheard of) will continue to be met with staunch opposition by the notoriously vocal and active unions through which they are represented. Any further reform may simply be brought to a standstill. But it is further reform that is needed: for as long state-funded primary and secondary education is split between schools with per-pupil funding, and those without, there will not be an efficient allocation of resources between schools, and an improvement in standards will not be adequately, if at all, realised.
A system rewarding only that minority of parents – those endowed with the means to widen their choice of local institutions – should not be a satisfactory result. Surely, those schools most in need of upheaval are the very same schools that are the least likely to submit themselves to the market, without the appearance of some benevolent investor. There is a distinct absence of willing capital. All the more worrying we inadvertently add another ‘tier’ to the system. The solution, then, lies in universal implementation; a voucher system, if you like, where state funding follows the student, wherever they go.
Further reading: Profit-making Free Schools: Unlocking the Potential of England's Proprietorial Schools Sector, a report for the Adam Smith Institute by James Croft.