Toby Young: "I would expect a high failure rate among free schools"

Henry Stewart's picture
A somewhat critical article in the Sunday Times on free schools yesterday included this comment from Toby Young:

"I would expect a high failure rate among free schools because people are being experimental and that means there will inevitably be some failures. At the start of the automobile industry a few cars blew up. That does not mean that we should have abandoned the car as a model of transport."

I do not know if Toby's story of exploding 19th century motor cars is true. But I do think most of us are grateful that modern consumer protection legislation means that being an early adopter of new technology does not involve risking our lives. And I'm not sure how many parents want to be part of an experimental school that could fail.

Using free market ideas to create competition in education?

Toby's viewpoint is based on the idea that the best innovation results from competitive markets, where some companies succeed and some fail. It is one thing to see the the end of the latest maker of high-tech gadgets, or even the closure of a new local restaurant. It is very different to see a school, or even a chain of schools (as has happened in Sweden) have to close with all the disruption that means for the children involved.

To pure free-market economists this is an acceptable situation. I remember, as an undergraduate economics student, being shocked to discover that Milton Freedman felt that doctors shouldn't be required to have medical degrees. instead, with free and open information, the market could show which were good physicians and which were dangerous. Simon Heffer expressed a similar view in recent years on Radio 4, arguing that all health and safety demands on companies should be got rid of. It would soon become clear which companies had high accident rates and that you should avoid working for. In both cases the deaths and injuries involved were somehow an acceptable way to find which doctors or companies to steer clear of.

Parents want a good quality education

It is arguable whether competitive markets are indeed the best route to innovation. Some of the greatest changes in society, including both the internet and the world wide web, have come from the public sector. But in competitive markets regulation is vital to protect us. We need to know that new cars are not going to blow up. We need to know that new medicines are safe and effective. Just as parents need to know that the school they select for their children is not an experimental project but a well planned and regulated provider of a good quality education, even if using an innovative approach.

Toby challenged LSN, a couple of years, ago under what circumstances I would be happy with academies and free schools. I responded that I would be happy if they were under the responsibility of local authorities. Toby regarded this as a step too far and a block to the concept of schools competing against each other, as companies do in the "free market".

Innovation within a framework

I believe the same now. I am for innovation and new approaches in schools. For me these new schools or the Labour parent-led schools could be fine if they are in response to needs identified by Local authorities (so are in areas of genuine need), if local authorities are in charge of admissions (as they should be for all schools to ensure fair admissions) and if, whatever their structure, all schools  are accountable to Local authorities and clearly part of the local family of state schools. However every child should have the right to a basic curriculum entitlement and the right to be taught by a qualified teacher, with scope for innovation thereafter.

We know from the London Challenge that collaboration, sharing good practice and supporting other teachers and other schools, is far more effective than competition (never mind school failure) in driving up standards. And we can be fairly sure that even those parents who have chosen to send their children to a free school would probably not have done so if they saw it as an experimental school that has a high chance of failure, any more than they would want to buy a motor car that might blow up.
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