Hot air on free school profits

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Nick Clegg’s promises on free school profiteering didn’t amount to much, but his comments on the restored role of local authorities slipped under the radar

The deputy prime minister’s spinners were out on manouevres this weekend, briefing a lot of nonsense about how our hero had defeated the nasty Tory profit-monger Michael Gove over his plans to allow greedy capitalists to make a few bob out of free schools.

Since no such plan is on the agenda in government (much to the annoyance of some providers and think tanks) and was even ruled out in the Tory manifesto, this particular Aunt Sally seemed to have been introduced merely to impress the more gullible types at the forthcoming Liberal Democrat conference, as well as the Sunday lobby with its particular fondness for the genre.

Unsurprisingly, there is little in Nick Clegg’s actual speech today to justify any of that hype. But there is a lot that is potentially rather more alarming for free schools and academies, and is a real threat to their independent development. This threat comes from a clear desire by the DPM to restore the role of local authorities in several crucial respects.

The local authority, according to Clegg, ‘could have a key role in deciding who new providers are and holding existing providers more sharply to account. Local authorities, closer by their very nature to their community than the Secretary of State, could be more determined than distant Whitehall to drive up attainment in their own patch – for example by setting higher standards for all schools in their area.’

But for most of the schools converting to academy status, a desire to have greater independence from the local authority is a big selling point. So too for some of those involved with free schools: read, for example, what Patricia Sowter, who is sponsoring Woodpecker Hall Academy, told me in my article in this month’s Public Finance.

Already, that independence is being eroded, the result one suspects as much of pressure from a resurgent Conservative-led Local Government Association as of the DPM’s arm-twisting at the cabinet table. The government has retreated on plans to move to a national funding formula, as the DPM notes approvingly in his speech, and is giving the job to local authorities to decide (with a few extra restrictions) on the funding of academies and free schools in their area, even if the money is paid by a national agency.

It remains to be seen, too, whether large authorities like Birmingham and Kent, where their Conservative politicians oppose coalition academy policies, not to mention the councillors across the country of all parties who are hostile, will see this new phase in quite the same spirit that the DPM envisages.

Yesterday, I thought that Clegg’s spin about profit-makers was all about currying favour with his activists. Today I wonder whether it was as much about deflecting the media from his rather more worrying pledge to revitalise the role of local authorities in education. That is a battle that he and his Tory councillor allies appear already to have won

A longer version of this blog first appeared on Conor’s Commentary

About Conor Ryan

Conor Ryan is director of research and communications at the Sutton Trust. He was senior special adviser to David Blunkett from 1993-2001 and Tony Blair’s senior education adviser from 2005-07. He blogs at Conor's Commentary and has written a number of books on educational issues.

2 comments on Hot air on free school profits

  1. Richard Pennington says:

    Why are you worried about plans to “revitalise the role of local authorities in education”? As our democratically elected representatives, they should be representing the community in holding those who run free schools and academies to account, as we can hold them to account in town halls and at the ballot box. I find your suggestion that those who run such schools should be free from any accountability other than to the Secretary of State both bizarre and anti-democratic.

  2. I have worked with many authorities over the last twenty years alongside Education colleagues rather than in their department. The majority seem to have healthy relationships with schools through the schools forums and many other supportive ways. This bid for freedom has a bribe attached and would appeal to those schools that maybe aren’t as challenged as others. The academies are now having to group together because resources aren’t that great and so you have pockets of consortiums amongst the rest of the schools which the LA have to deal with and co-ordinate. That is the main problem – a lack of strategic planning across an authority. The way things are at the moment there will be a two tier within areas let alone the country. No plan to co-ordinate or is this magically going to happen? Schools doubtless want more independence but where is the safety net? Most of the money goes to schools through the DSG with only a relatively small amount going to LAs. It’s bit like the disbanding of the GLC in the 80′s – things sort of worked but guess what there’s now a GLA and a mayor to boot. Systems will always needing adjustments rather than major surgery. This reduction in LA presence is a bit of a concern because both major parties are on the same course, now that is scary.

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