Editorial - Free schools are a sideshow. So why do ministers shun the main attraction?

28th January 2011 at 00:00

Congratulations to the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment in Ormskirk. After due contemplation - which is only to be expected of a place offering transcendental meditation as part of the curriculum - it has decided to opt out of the independent sector and apply to become a state free school (pages 8-9).

Many would not applaud its decision. The enthusiasm of the Government for free schools is matched only by the vehemence of its opponents. For them, free schools are excuses for covert selection, ghettos for bankers' children and havens for religious zealots. If the chastity of protection officers were more dependable, free-school evangelists would surely have bodyguards. The meditative folk in Lancashire have joined a very noisy conversation.

Yet all the hullabaloo, the masses of publicity and the ubiquity of Toby Young mask a weedy fact. Only one free school has been approved and fewer than 40 are in the pipeline. Thirty-four to be precise. Free schools have arrived not with a fanfare but with a barely audible fart. Beyond true believers and demographic deniers, the idea has not caught on and seems doomed to irrelevance.

This is not because free school opponents have won the ideological argument. Many parents probably approve of free schools' aims and sympathise with the frustrations of their supporters. According to Mr Young, the advertisement in The TES for headteacher of his free school attracted more than 160 applicants - which hardly suggests they are beyond the pale even within the teaching profession. Yet the impression remains that this isn't a grassroots revolution but more of a minor disturbance in the shrubbery.

One reason for this is obvious - the concept is inherently limiting. There aren't many parents or teachers who, at the end of a busy working week and whatever their doubts about what is on offer, think "I'm bored with the allotment and I've seen enough of Kirstie Allsopp, I must go out and found a free school". The other reason is less transparent - the free school movement owes its existence to political weakness rather than ideological strength.

Free schools were embraced by the Tories because they didn't have the nerve pre-election to make the case for the one sector that could deliver their vision - for-profit providers. Associating profit with pupils was deemed to be toxic, so free schools were called on to play a role that was way too big. This was a mistake. A country that can accept private enterprise in health, transport, incarceration and local government can surely stomach it in education. There are perfectly good arguments against it, of course. But it is odd that a Government that delights in slaughtering sacred cows should remain vegetarian over this. Free schools are a distraction. If ministers want to turbo-charge their revolution, they need to start making the case for for-profit providers.


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