Free Schools: not for turning.

Below, an amended version of Melissa Benn’s latest blog on the Public Finance website

So it looks like only a handful of Free Schools will be opening in 2011, and some high profile projects like Toby Young’s West London Free School might be delayed for a year or two. Following on from the PR disasters of the BSF funding announcements and the widespread criticism of the way that the Academies Bill was pushed through the Commons in late July, it looks as if the Coalition’s flagship education policy is in trouble.

Not a bit of it. Gove got off to an unsteady start and the summer break will surely lead him to reflect on his department’s manner of policy presentation, if not its substance. This autumn, I suspect we will see a rather more sober Gove, emphasising caution and caring at every turn.

Clever politician that he is, he might even argue that the slow start to the Free Schools project is actually a good thing, indicating that government is playing it by the book and that the new schools are subject to the same financial and planning strictures as the maintained sector.

And yesterday’s Institute for Fiscal Studies report showing that the government’s austerity drive is going to hit the poor the hardest will only confirm to Gove and co the need to keep arguing that their education policy is there to help the disadvantaged.

The pupil premium will be introduced in the coming months; who knows, perhaps around the time of the potentially restive Lib Dem conference? But whatever the timing, expect much to be made of it, even though many hard-pressed headteachers I’ve spoken to say that even in their schools, with high numbers of students on free school meals, its introduction is unlikely to make up even a fraction of the shortfall left by other cuts.

But for all this, there will be no change of heart or direction from government on the schools front. The so called Free Schools and the new ‘outstanding’ academies are at the heart of the Coalition’s determination to break up state provision and introduce private initiative and finance at all levels of the welfare state.

Of course, a few schools will flourish; backed by corporate capital, powered forward by influential figures, drawing on the most talented pool of pupils, how can they fail? And of course, they will include in their ranks some of the country’s poorest but most talented pupils whom you can be sure, come results day, like yesterday, will be pushed to the front of all publicity photographs.

But what about the schools in those areas decimated by economic changes of the last few decades, struggling with polarised and deeply pessimistic communities? Will they be able to generate the same sparkling transforming institutions?

Slashes to the mainstream education budget will hit local schools in poor areas, and the increasingly marginalised local authorities, losing central finance to the new academies and free schools, will be hard pushed to offer them the support they need.

This is the real story of this government’s education policy. It’s got nothing to do with Latin in state schools or celebrity journalists turned wise old pedagogues. It concerns the right to a decent education for the poorest citizens of our nation.

We should judge the Coalition and the success of their education policy by the future and fate and of these citizens and these communities. Whether the Free Schools fling open their doors next September or the September afterwards matters very little to that central question.

Melissa Benn is a writer and journalist. Her latest book on education in the modern age, The New Class Wars, will be published next autumn by Verso.

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