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The Independent’s splash is full of holes – but that doesn’t mean that Gove is against for-profit schools

By Peter Hoskin
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MGAccording to physicists who measure such things, Michael Gove moves at hyperspeed. After three years of this Government, there are now over ten times as many academies as there were when Labour left power. Around 80 free schools have been established, with a further 90 set to open this September. And that’s before we consider the minister’s efforts to reform the exam system and to write a new curriculum.

But, on the treadmill that is the British education system, further pace is still required. Thanks to a sustained baby boom and to immigration, there’s now an impending shortage of primary school places. According to the National Audit Office, a further 240,000 places will be required by Autumn 2014. Against that sort of number, those 170 new free schools don’t sound so impressive.

So what will speed things up? One answer emerges above all others: money, lucre, spondulicks. There are plenty of players itching to get into to the free school game, if only they could make a profit from it. They’ve seen what happened in Sweden, where profit-making is allowed and led to a huge expansion in decent schooling, and want to match their supply against Britain’s demand.

Which is where this morning’s Independent splash comes in. “Michael Gove plans to let firms run schools for profit,” reads the headline. Underneath, the paper tells of “private plans” that have been “leaked to The Independent by Department for Education insiders,” and by which “Academies and free schools should become profit-making businesses using hedge funds and venture capitalists to raise money”. It’s written as a scare story, but it’s the sort of thing that might hearten those who want to see an expansion of free schools. Profit-making? At last!

But, hang on a minute, there are a couple of problems with the Indy’s story. The first is that, as Guido and Toby Young have pointed out, this leak had already trickled out to the Independent on Sunday… six months ago. And the second is that it’s been completely denied by the Department of Education – they’ve put out a quote reading, “We have repeatedly made it clear that we will not introduce for-profit schools. This story is absurd.” –and with good reason. As I understand it, Nick Clegg has, since the very birth of the Coalition, put for-profit schools in the folder marked NO, NEVER, NOT ON MY WATCH. It just won’t happen in this Parliament.

This doesn’t mean that Gove isn’t open to the idea of for-profit free schools. In fact, whilst giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry last year, he admitted that they “could” happen in the future. Yet he’s currently bound by the demands of Coalition. We might see them in the event of a majority Tory government after 2015 – perhaps even in the Tory manifesto, although that’s unlikely given the political brouhaha it would stir up during the campaign – but no time sooner.

In the meantime, it is – as I’ve said plenty of times before – worth keeping an eye on the IES Breckland school which opened last September. This, like other academies, is a charitable trust, but there’s a crucial difference: under a provision introduced by the last Labour Government, the management of the school has effectively been outsourced to a Swedish provider, which is thus making money from the deal. This may not be profit-making in its fullest expression, but it’s the closest thing we have to it. For now, it’s where the ideological battle will be fought.


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