Tony Blair has publicly backed free schools as "a great idea" and accused teaching unions of obstructing "necessary educational change", TES can reveal.
The former Labour prime minister, speaking at a conference in Dubai last week, also called for more private sector involvement in state education. While stopping short of backing state schools being run for profit, Mr Blair did not oppose the idea, instead saying that the UK was not "ready" to debate the move.
The Tories have always said that their free schools policy, fiercely resisted by teaching unions and Labour, is a natural continuation of Mr Blair's reforms and are likely to seize on his latest comments.
Opening the inaugural Global Education and Skills Forum, Mr Blair was asked whether he thought people should be able to profit from providing state-funded education.
"For those in the UK, I don't think we are ready for this debate and I don't think we ever will be," he said. "Although I think the free schools that are being established now - as you will know, one of my old policy team Peter Hyman is establishing another. this is a great idea."
He added: "The most important thing right now is to establish clearly the principle of different types and different sorts of schools within the public education system."
The question came from the British Consul General to Dubai, Edward Hobart, who is a co-founder of the West London Free School, one of the first of the independent state-funded schools condemned by unions as an "ideological experiment" and a "huge waste of public money".
Mr Blair said that teaching unions were "important" and should represent their members. "But let's be very honest about it, in certain systems teachers' unions have stood out against necessary educational change." He acknowledged that some may not like that message but said it was true nonetheless.
"For politicians there is one very simple test: what is best for the pupils?" Mr Blair continued. "Quite honestly, the best people to answer that in my experience are neither the politicians nor the teachers but the parents."
The former prime minister also said that part of the reason why parents and employers in developed countries still felt education was failing, despite huge investment, was that "there are vested interests often within the educational system that hold back reform and change".
But John Bangs, a senior consultant at Education International, a federation of teaching unions in 172 countries, described Mr Blair as "remarkably out of touch". "OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) evidence shows that teacher policies that have been constructed in partnership with teaching unions are the most effective in creating outstanding education systems," he said.
Mr Blair told the summit in Dubai, organised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the Commonwealth Business Council and the GEMS Education international private schools chain, that he supported public and private sector partnerships in state education.
He said that introducing "a significant range of different providers" led to "innovation and change, new ideas and improvements that someone sitting in an education department would never think of".
When it emerged in 2011 that Mr Hyman - formerly Mr Blair's chief strategist at Downing Street - was opening a free school in East London, sources at the project said it had the former premier's "full blessing".
But Mr Blair's latest comments have now made that backing public. New Labour figures, such as Philip Collins - chief speech-writer for Mr Blair when he was at No 10 - have urged the party to stop opposing free schools and claim credit for the reforms it inspired. Mr Blair has previously been reluctant to speak out on the subject.
Tony Blair's comments in support of the free schools policy came as it emerged that three of the first nine free schools to be inspected by Ofsted were deemed to "require improvement".
Mary Bousted, Association of Teachers and Lecturers general secretary, said: "There is no evidence whatsoever that free schools raise standards."
In certain systems teachers' unions have stood out against necessary educational change.
Photo credit: PA
Original headline: Free schools are `a great idea', says Tony Blair