Leading article: A liberating idea, an incomplete policy

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The Independent Online

The new Government's education policy is based on a beguilingly simple idea: give schools greater freedom. Ministers want to allow state schools to become independent academies, liberated from the control of local councils. They also intend to encourage parents, social entrepreneurs and charities to set up their own schools and run them in the manner they see fit.

Liberalising the provision of education is an attractive idea, as well as a simple one. Labour did good things for our schools, in particular the increase in funding and resources. But its habit of trying to micromanage classrooms from Whitehall was a terrible bane, demoralising teachers and, ultimately, harming children's education. The argument for allowing individual schools freedom to decide their own ethos, to digress from the curriculum and to pay good teachers more is a powerful one.

But there are problems with the Government's simple idea, which have not been adequately addressed. There is a disconcerting vagueness about the lines of accountability in the new educational landscape. If new "free" schools are to be given public money, they will need to be monitored to see that the taxpayer is getting value for money and students are getting a satisfactory education. But who will perform this policing role? Normally, that would be the job of local education authorities (LEAs). Yet academies and "free" schools will be free from the oversight of LEAs. That function will apparently instead fall to the Department for Education. If a "free" school gets a bad inspection report, will it be for the Education Secretary to decide whether or not it should close? That would be a strange position for a Government which wants to devolve decision-making to a local level to find itself in.

There are further tensions. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, believes in traditional educational values. He wants all children to have access to "the best that has been thought and written". It is an attractive vision. But giving more autonomy to schools will make it impossible for Mr Gove and future education secretaries to impose such educational values from the centre. The national curriculum is to be slimmed down; a sensible move after Labour's years of incessant fiddling and endless additions. But the fact remains that individual schools might take a radically different view from Mr Gove over the best way to educate a child. And under the new system they will be perfectly within their rights to do so.

Freedom is generally welcome, but it is important to recognise that it often leads to unequal outcomes. How does the Government propose to prevent the development of a two-tier education system, in which schools serving prosperous areas thrive and those in the inner cities fall back?

Here the Liberal Democrats' "pupil premium", which will channel more funds to those schools with a more disadvantaged intake, should help smooth out inequalities. But a suspicion lingers that this is all a subtle way for the Tories to favour schools in already advantaged areas. In the eyes of the teaching unions, this is a manifesto for greater social segregation in schooling; a softening-up exercise for the return of academic selection.

That critique is unfair. The Conservatives have come a considerable distance on education policy in recent years. Six years ago, their central education policy was to fund middle-class families to escape to private schools. Now their desire to improve the performance of all state schools seems genuine. But good intentions are not enough on their own. Safeguards matter, too. There are laudable aspects to the Government's planned liberation of the school sector. But this simple idea still needs some serious work.