When is a free school not free?

“We are having a school-places crisis going on,” Labour’s new Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, proclaimed boldly on Sunday morning’s Andrew Marr show.

Despite Labour’s new found hyperbolic fetish of adding ‘crisis’ to seemingly every issue in British politics today, I must admit that I find myself agreeing. Our state-run education system is indeed facing a shortage of places. And, unlike Trabants or kidney transplants, your request for one can’t simply be added to a three-year long waiting list.

Labour’s solution? Well, upon initial observation, it actually appears as if the party has made a considerable U-turn. Just earlier this summer, the former Shadow Education Secretary, Stephen Twigg, pledged that a Labour government would halt the establishment of new free schools.

But now Mr Hunt claims that Labour will support the establishment of ‘parent-led academies which will be good parent-led academies’. ‘Good’ is defined not as whether the schools are popular in the local area (because, naturally, parents favour poor quality schools) but rather whether the local area is at the sharp end of this school-place crisis, the teachers at the proposed school would be ‘properly qualified’ and that systems of transparency and financial accountability exist.

Again, on paper, this may not appear too bad. After all, who wants a radical Islamist madrassa with dodgy teachers preaching all-manner of uncomfortable ideas on their doorstep, in an area where there are already enough school-places?

Indeed, surely this is a place where the intervention of the paternalistic socialist state can be more than justified? To maintain the best free-schools, and squeeze out the worst? Alas, I can more than see the point.

The simple problem with Labour’s plans? The best free schools will be closed free schools.

Under Hunt’s approach, any new free school wanting to open in an area will require local authority permission. I ask you, where do you believe most free schools are established? In areas where the population holds peculiar and sometimes extreme religious and political views, or in areas where current education provision by the local authority is so dire that parents are willing to invest tremendous time and effort establishing an entirely new school of their own?

Local councils despise free-schools because they simply highlight the authority’s inability to provide an adequate standard of education for their electors’ children. To give councils the power of veto over free school establishment is akin to allowing an Asda manager to decide whether a Tesco should open up next door.

Furthermore, the notion that unqualified teachers are, by definition, poor teachers is also flawed. While in state schools, the ability of a teacher to actually teach is based upon their possession of a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). This is not the case in private schools. Instead, the ability of the teacher is determined by results.

This is a system whereby three quarters of schools provide pay-related incentives for high grades, while  less than ten per cent reward tenure, as is standard across the state sector. This added flexibility in private schools is a vital aspect of the free school project, allowing ex-soldiers, engineers, business consultants and others with specialist skills and previous non-classroom based teaching experience to bring diversity into the education profession.

If these people can bring in good results and teach well, why should their specific qualifications matter? After all, the PGCE is a means to an end, yet Labour seem to believe that it is simply an end in itself.

Finally, Labour’s plans possess a nasty undertone. Namely that parents are unable to decide which schools can provide their children with the best education. Therefore decisions regarding the future life prospects of a parent’s single most precious possession should be handled by a more responsible person.

A state bureaucrat, who knows as much about your child, how they learn and what they wish to achieve will make a decision on the command of the database screen. The education provided to your child will be state sanctioned and, therefore, neutral and devoid of any possible social, political, cultural or religious bias which seemingly plagues the free school system. That’s clearly in everybody’s best interest.

Through the free schools project the failings of the state education monopoly are being exposed. Despite specifically helping those who cannot afford to privately educate their children, rather than address the failings, Labour simply want to squeeze out the competition.

They’ve decried Michael Gove’s polices as ideologically driven. Well, I don’t believe parents care too much about the ideology behind them. They simply want a good education for their kids and, quite clearly, the ideology of state socialism is gravely failing them there.