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Free school debate ends in stalemate

The live debate on free schools held by The TES this week - in which campaigner Toby Young was opposed by Kevin Courtney of teaching union the NUT - did more, as the chairman pointed out, to clarify battle lines than to create bridges. Opinion was equally divided between the two camps before the debate started, and that's how it remained.

However, there was much nonsense talked about free schools equating to the privatisation of state education. If unions are worried about private providers using taxpayers' money to make a profit in the state sector they ought to wake up because this is now widely accepted.

Providing there is a robust regulatory environment and no selection plus demonstrable demand, how can you object to parents setting up a school? There is an incoherence in the argument that you want more parental involvement, but you won't allow them to set up schools.

There is a suspicion that some teachers don't much like the reality of more parental involvement - and there was an inkling of this in contributions to the debate.

Union leaders don't like free schools - mainly, it seems, apart from the profit issues, because they worry about accountability and the loss of teacher voice.

However, accountability can be delivered by imposing tight contracts over providers. There is potentially huge scope for teachers' voices to be heard on governing bodies, too, and this is certainly the case with the proposed free school for Acton. There is even scope, under Tory proposals, for co-operatives to be set up. It is an upside-down world when the NUT opposes the establishment of co-ops, isn't it?

Patrick Watson, Managing director, Montrose Public Affairs Consultants.

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