One thing sticks in my mind from my visit to Sweden to study their free schools system – upon which Michael Gove has based many of his education reforms.
It was an interview with Mikael Sandstrom, the Swedish government’s most senior adviser on education, in which he argued that Mr Gove’s reforms would not work unless he allowed those running the free schools to make a profit. Without that incentive, he argued, the schools would not expand – denying disadvantaged pupils the chance to snap up the extra places. This seems to be the kind of thinking which is now taking place in the Education Secretary’s department.
In Mr Gove’s ideal world, he would like to preside over a system composed solely of academies and free schools. His attitude towards local authority schools can best be summed up by paraphrasing John Wayne’s attitude towards Indians: the only good local authority school is a dead local authority school. He feels he will not be able to achieve his aim unless he makes it more attractive for private providers to run academies.
Many would prefer to call a halt to the expansion of academies and free schools. I have no objection to either, but I feel the key to improving performances is standards, not structures – and it is time to start praising local authorities who succeed against the odds.
While some would argue that this outcome might best be achieved by electing a government of a different political hue, it is worth examining what would happen if a Conservative government with a manifesto commitment to introducing a “for profit” motive into the running of state schools were returned at the 2015 election.
There would have to be stringent safeguards against abuses. One of the biggest providers of free schools in Sweden went bust just over a month ago. There would have to be safeguards to protect children’s education in the event of that happening.
It would also be vital to ensure that the main aim of the “for profit” providers was raising standards, not just making a fast buck.