Education & Family

No extra free schools to open under Labour, says Twigg

There would be no more free schools opened by a future Labour government, but existing free schools could stay open, says the party's education spokesman, Stephen Twigg.

The shadow education secretary also wants all state schools in England to have the rights given to academies.

Mr Twigg says he wants to end a "fragmented, divisive" school system.

Education Secretary Michael Gove says the proposals were still "free schools under a different name".

"Labour's policy on free schools is so tortured they should send in the UN to end the suffering," said Mr Gove.

In a major policy speech on Monday, Mr Twigg has taken a significant step towards setting out the opposition's schools policy.

Free schools, set up by parents and other groups, would no longer be created under Labour. The more than 80 free schools already open and those in the pipeline would continue to be funded, says Mr Twigg, but beyond that point new schools would have to be created as academies.

Under his blueprint, academies and local authority schools would have similar levels of autonomy. Mr Twigg described the plans using a phrase associated with Tony Blair's early years in office: "Standards not structures."

Mr Blair's former education secretary, David Blunkett, is also returning as the head of a review into how academies and other schools should work with local authorities.

Mr Twigg argues against an "incoherent" and "bureaucratic" system in which different types of school have different levels of flexibility.

'Freedom'

"We know that giving schools more freedom over how they teach and how they run and organise their schools can help to raise standards," the shadow education secretary told his audience at the RSA in London.

"So why should we deny those freedoms to thousands of schools? All schools should have them, not just academies and free schools.

"A school should not have to change its structure just to gain freedoms."

Since Labour left office in 2010, more than half of secondary schools in England have become self-governing academies, and rather than reversing this tide, Mr Twigg says that all schools should share similar degrees of autonomy.

Academies, state-funded schools which operate outside of local authority control, can set their own curriculum and decide their own school terms and the length of school days.

They have greater financial independence and can buy in services such as technology.

Rather than turn back from the model of school autonomy, a Labour government would accelerate more schools in that direction.

Pay limits

"Many academies say freedom to innovate in the curriculum has given their teachers a new sense of confidence and professionalism," Mr Twigg says.

There are now almost 3,000 academies and the announcement by Mr Twigg seems set to draw a line under any suggestion that Labour might withdraw support from them.

But this does not mean that Labour wants all schools to have every freedom associated with academies.

Academies are able to set their own pay and conditions for their teaching staff, a power that has been controversial with the teachers' unions.

Labour is not proposing that this power should be extended to all schools, arguing that the current national pay framework should not be broken up.

There would also be a more significant role for local authorities, with Mr Twigg arguing they should be able to intervene in academies and free schools, as well as local authority schools, when there are concerns about standards.

A Department for Education source dismissed Labour's policy announcements, saying free schools would continue "in all but name".

"Labour policy on free schools is still confused. On the one hand Twigg says he will end the free school programme, but on the other he says he would set up 'parent-led and teacher-led academies' - free schools under a different name."

The government source also accused Labour of confusion over what powers should be devolved to schools.

"Stephen Twigg has previously said that he wants to take freedoms over the curriculum away from academies," said a government source.

"Just two months ago he even said Labour will restore local authority control over academies."

Qualified to teach

The government is also attacking Labour's proposal that only staff with teaching qualifications should be allowed to teach in state schools.

A Department for Education source said schools needed the "flexibility to allow brilliant teachers from private schools or abroad to teach in state schools".

"It's a mistake to confuse being properly qualified and state-controlled licences, and it would be stupid to stop brilliant teachers who want to be able to switch from private to state schools from doing so."

Head teachers' leader Brian Lightman welcomed the continuity suggested by Labour's plans to extend academies rather than reinvent the school system.

"The last thing schools need is yet more turmoil caused by rushed reforms," said Mr Lightman, general secretary of the ASCL head teachers' union.

"However there is a need to reduce variability amongst schools so it is therefore right that any freedoms granted to academies and free schools should be extended to all state schools."

Mr Lightman also backed the idea of maintaining a national system of pay and conditions.

The National Union of Teachers welcomed the requirement for all teachers to have teaching qualifications and the support for national pay bargaining, but warned that allowing parents to open schools would not create a "coherent" system.

More on this story