The Conservatives have launched a manifesto pledging to give parents the power to open their own schools if they are disappointed with local provision. The Conservatives promise that the process will be made easy for these parents but it won't be easy, will it?
Setting up a school will inevitably be a bureaucratic nightmare as the state will need to ensure that the appropriate checks are made on staff, that staff are qualified to do their jobs, that buildings are found or built and that they meet the required standard for access, size and local services. If the Tories really plan to 'free up' parents to do this, they face two outcomes:
* either these proposed new schools will be set up exclusively in areas where more affluent families can devote the time and resources to do this, leaving areas of families who don't have the time to commit to new schools with the same choice of one school;
* or the plans for parents to set up schools will be made so easy that the new schools will in effect be local authority schools anyway in which parents have a titular role, making the organisation of local provision by education authorities much more difficult and increasing costs for everyone.
There will be no revolution in schools provision, instead there will simply be patchy examples with one or two winners and a lot of losers.
I live in a village with a plethora of volunteer groups, including a community shop which I am involved in. These community groups tend to attract the same small groups of people who do most of the volunteering, leaving the great majority of people to enjoy the clubs and services provided with little or no input. That is normal and entirely reasonable for a community wood society, a toddler group and an 'evergreens' club for older people but it will not be sufficient for a school. That's my fear with the Tory plans: the idea will be welcomed with acclaim in a local community. Residents will come together and organise meetings and plan and slowly, over several months, the numbers of people involved will dwindle, leaving fewer people to run what will be a huge undertaking. This is normal for voluntary groups and most are quite comfortable with such a consolidation but for a school - a key part of the life of local children and families for years - will this be sufficient or will local authorities be asked increasingly to step in and take over schools set up in haste, having played no part in the planning of local education.
Instead of this bureaucratic and divisive nightmare, what about simply pledging to improve existing schools by investing £2.5bn in the education of the least well off pupils AND giving more control back to existing schools and local communities to manage their own affairs, since they know a lot more than Whitehall what their priorities are. Would you support a party which proposed that straightforward solution to problems in our education system? If you would, please vote Liberal Democrat on May 6th.
On the other hand, if you want yet more experimentation with our education system with inevitably varied results across the country, vote for the Tories.