News that the National Autistic Society is planning to set up a free school highlights an impending policy dilemma. Currently, the party’s policy is officially one of opposition to free schools. However if, by the time of the 2015 general election, free schools started by popular and worthy organisations such as the National Autistic Society are up and running, would it be either sensible education policy or practical politics simply to say, ‘we don’t like free schools; they have got to go’?
A different option would be to extend what the party’s ministers have been doing in government. Faced with a Coalition Agreement that of course includes many Conservative policies, one of which is free schools, ministers have taken the attitude, ‘well, if we’ve got to have them, here are some ways to make the policy better…’.
For example, last year Nick Clegg said:
Let me be clear what I want to see from free schools. I want them to be available to the whole community – open to all children and not just the privileged few. I want them to be part of a school system that releases opportunity, rather than entrenching it. They must not be the preserve of the privileged few – creaming off the best pupils while leaving the rest to fend for themselves. Causing problems for and draining resources from other nearby schools…
Michael Gove will be making decisions on the second wave over the coming weeks. I want to see all of them in poorer neighbourhoods. Or in areas crying out for more school places.
We are also taking unprecedented steps to make sure disadvantaged pupils actually get into these schools. Along with academies, free schools will, for the first time, be able to give them special priority in their admissions.
The reference to areas of school place shortages is particularly significant, as there is a small but growing number of Liberal Democrat councillors and campaigners in such areas who are calling for free schools to provide much needed extra places. Faced with councils not responding to school place needs in their communities, free schools can look an attractive answer to town hall intransigence. That too makes it harder to envisage a successful and sensible 2015 manifesto policy of simple opposition to free schools.
The third option, the least glorious but one that has a political heritage across all three parties, is simply to say that whatever has happened by 2015 should be kept, but nothing more nor less. It is the classic small-c conservative response to something happening that you don’t like: you neither want more, nor will you undo it. (Think of how many people take this approach to grammar schools – opposing expansion but not wanting or willing to force reductions.)
All of these courses have disadvantages, and all are influenced by what you think of the merit of free schools in the first place. So over to you: what do you think the Liberal Democrat policy in 2015 should be?