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David Cameron

David Cameron talks with school children during a visit to The Green School for girls in west London. Image EPA

Cameron’s announcement of 500 free schools was a blatant attempt to take the focus off his cuts to education argues John Westmoreland

The announcement that a future Tory government would create another 500 Free Schools came at the same time as Cameron has cut 24 per cent from the budget for Adult Learning.

The cut to Adult Learning will have a devastating effect. Colleges that have built up Access to Education courses, which offer a second chance of education, are being forced to sack lecturers and close courses. There will be a knock-on effect for many working class communities. People who want to retrain or achieve personal fulfilment will be denied the chance. Many adults use education as an opportunity for meeting new and interesting people as well as rebuilding their lives, and studies show that adult education can be a refuge for women in abusive relationships too. The attack on Adult Learning is an attack on our right to education for life.

Cameron’s announcement of 500 free schools was a blatant attempt to take the focus off his cuts to education. Nevertheless he wants Free Schools to form the dividing line of policy between the Tories and Labour. The calculation is that Labour will offer half-hearted criticism but will draw back from threatening to take them back into local authority control, largely because the cuts have wrecked the ability of councils to run education effectively.

However, the facts don’t support the Tory narrative. Free schools do not improve education or provision, they damage it. The Tories have allocated £1.7bn for Free School funding for 2014-15. This is one third of the funding allocated for new school places in England overall. The Tories pet project is therefore damaging education as a whole.

Thirteen per cent of teachers in Free Schools are unqualified and as the graph below makes clear Free Schools lag behind other schools in providing quality education according to Ofsted statistics.

Therefore we can say categorically that the Tory arguments for Free Schools are completely wrong. However, the campaign against Free Schools has some way to go too.

The problem for those of us campaigning against Free Schools is that where schools are over-crowded and staff are demoralised as a result of government cuts, a new school that seems to stand outside the chaos is still attractive to parents who are not familiar with the arguments we make.

The Tories can find examples of Free Schools that seem to make a difference to the community. This often happens in towns where there is real poverty and unemployment. One such example is Blackburn with Darwen. In a town with a high level of unemployment there are thirteen secondary schools, five of which are free schools.

It must be a joy to the Tories that Labour MP and corporate friend Jack Straw has played a significant role in bringing Free Schools to Blackburn. A recent article in the Guardian cited the Headteacher at the Tauheedul Educational Trust which runs two Free Schools in the town as saying, “When you have these new places and new schools, they do lead to innovation within those new schools. But it also means – and I’ve seen it – that schools around you raise their standards.” Thus a beneficiary of privatisation becomes a Conservative spokesman on education. Straw helped set up both the Tauheedul schools.

To oppose Free Schools and the privatisation of education we have to wake up to the fact that the Free School project is not simply about education. What Cameron wants to do is use the issue of Free Schools to argue that the wider values of free market capitalism are beneficial and offer a way out of the poverty his government has created.

The Tory narrative around Free Schools is that state-run education has failed. Initiative and creativity have been stifled by local government bureaucracy and defensive teaching unions. In contrast Free Schools are claimed, whatever the actual evidence, to free up creativity and give parents choice and empowerment. The ideology behind Free Schools we must point out, uses the same logic that drives austerity, namely that the private sector can succeed where democratically elected bodies have failed.

If working class people can be made to believe that Free Schooling is more likely to meet the needs of the community than state schooling then the Tory values of competition between schools and private management over public sector education can be used as an exemplar for further privatisation, and more cuts to schools run by local authorities. The madness of the market is presented as magic on condition that Labour fail to offer any meaningful criticism, and their record of supporting the privatisation of education makes this depressingly likely.

It is not just education that will be affected. Once we get used to the idea of Free Schools, why not Free Hospitals too? To break the cycle of cuts, privatisation and more cuts we need to lock the arguments in defence of education to the arguments in defence of the NHS.

The work of the Peoples Assembly is now more urgent than ever. We need to make the case that Free School logic is exactly the same as the logic for austerity. If you want to save the NHS, stop war and end inequality you have to be for a fully funded national education system free at the point of delivery.

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John Westmoreland

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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