Let’s be clear about one thing. Free schools are not something Labour and Co-operative members should be in favour of. They use funding that should be being spent in the state sector, by local authorities making existing schools better and building new schools for the future. Schools that exist outside of the state sector can set their own pay and conditions for staff. However, the reality is that the current Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition has said that any new schools, or schools going into special measures, should be academies or free schools.
Unless the Lib Dems suddenly grow tired of the ministerial cars and red boxes, and discover an unnatural desire for electoral oblivion at an early General Election, we seem stuck with that reality until 2015. In Brighton and Hove we have an acute shortage of primary school places in the west of the city, and a history of some schools in the east struggling to attract pupils and achieve good results. Overall our secondary schools are not performing as well as they should. Two secondary schools are already academies run by the Aldridge Foundation, and there is a risk that Michael Gove will be imposing a further academy school on us soon.
The answer of the previous minority Conservative council administration, one being continued by the minority Green administration, is to expand existing schools or create “new” schools in separate buildings but which are part of “extended” existing schools. Some of these buildings are former schools, like my old primary school built in the Victorian era, or are portakabins. It seems likely that the Tory government will tolerate this kind of expansion for only so long. In some respects they are right; it cannot be good for primary schools to grow bigger and bigger, and for children to be taught in buildings which are not fit for purpose.
If the Conservative-led government is going to block further expansion of existing schools or the creation of satellite or federated schools, block any new school that isn’t an academy or free school, and refuse additional funding for state schools, then, as Stephen Twigg has said, we need to look at the reality of the situation and do what is best for children starting school now or in two, three or four years time. We can’t put children’s education on hold while we wait for a Labour government in 2015, and we can’t make children’s education a victim of the Tories’ ideology.
As someone educated in the neglected state secondary sector from 1979 to 1986, I know how harmful this can be. At our recent full council meeting the Labour & Co-operative Group proposed supporting the principle of Co-operative schools as a way of dealing with the fact that we may have no choice but to accommodate free schools and more academies. Despite their professed support for co-operatives, the Greens voted against, saying that no matter how they are “branded”, they implacably oppose free schools and academies.
The Greens, as with so many things, may want to ignore the reality of the situation, retreat into opposition and step back from their responsibilities, but we in the Labour and Co-operative movement, in all good conscience, can’t. Children need decent local and accessible school places and a good education. They only get one chance. Teachers need a good teaching environment, good pay, conditions, pensions and a route back into the state sector.
We need to engage with the process, influence how these free schools and academies are set up and run, wherever and whenever possible as co-operatives rooted in the community and run by the community, on a not-for-profit basis in partnership with the local authority and other local educational bodies.