Alex Massey is a Research Fellow Policy Exchange's Education Unit.
On Monday evening a debate was held between the education spokesmen of the three main parties. Predictably, it wasn't long before the discussion turned to Sweden. As one frustrated audience member pointed out, Messrs Balls, Gove and Laws mention the state of Swedish schools so regularly these days that one could be forgiven for thinking they are competing to become mayor of Stockholm - the small Nordic nation having become a convenient form of shorthand for the concept of independent, state-funded schools.
All three main parties have to some degree signalled support for the idea of encouraging new independent state schools. However, what this means in practice remains unclear. There are already about 200 'academies' in the UK, run by non-state providers notionally outside the control of local government. Many have been successful- some, like Mossbourne in Hackney, astonishingly so. But any party wishing to expand this small system will face big problems. There remain significant local obstacles to new schools being set up, while the range of potential providers is far more limited here than in Sweden and elsewhere. Moreover, many of the freedoms which new academies in theory enjoy are curtailed by bureaucratic realities, or have been severely eroded since the replacement of Andrew Adonis and Tony Blair by Ed Balls and Gordon Brown.
In Blair's words, the whole point of academies was “about schools feeling ownership of their own future, the power and the responsibility that comes from being free to chart their own course, experiment, innovate... the decision-makers in their own destiny.” But Ed Balls made his suspicion of such thinking very clear during Monday's debate, when he denounced the false idol of independence and extolled the virtues of local authority-run education systems. During his three years as Education Secretary, Balls has given local authorities a de facto veto on the creation of new academies (undermining the original purpose of the academies programme - to reverse local authority failure); removed the freedom academies once enjoyed to set their own curriculum; and forced academies to co-operate with local authority-wide plans for the provision of children’s services, diluting their focus on improving educational outcomes.
If we are to attract more new providers to run new, high-quality schools, we must not only restore their independence, but also address the bureaucratic restrictions, regulations and inconsistencies that stand in their way. This means overhauling prescriptive planning and building requirements, reforming school accountability, and sorting out the postcode lottery of local per-pupil funding, whereby an academy provider sets up two schools in deprived areas sixty miles apart - and the difference in funding between the two areas is £1,000 per pupil or more.
Policy Exchange’s report Blocking the Best is released today, and sets out the ways in which we might overcome the obstacles that confront new providers entering the schools system. Additionally, it assesses the level of genuine independence available to academy sponsors, and points to where freedom must be granted or restored in areas such as curriculum, discipline, admissions and staff terms. In summary, it’s an overview of what must be done to create a flourishing system of truly independent state schools. Now we need to see who’ll go for it.