Community rights and free schools both make a lot of people nervous. Many people see them as ‘privatisation by the back door’ and a deliberate attempt to dismantle long established public services. To be honest I also share this concern, believing that there is a real danger of private sector companies scooping up contracts to run our public services and suck profits out. However I believe we can reduce this risk by ensuring there are high quality alternatives that are not driven by a profit motive.
Working on the community rights agenda during the lengthy passage of the Localism Bill, I saw a great deal of nervousness. In research we did at Urban Forum, we found that two thirds of community groups thought that the Right to Challenge would lead to greater private sector service delivery. However the response to this risk from many in the not for profit sector was highly pragmatic. Was there a way, they asked, for us to reduce this risk? Or even more than that, was there actually an opportunity for us to benefit from the policy? For many the response had clearly been to conclude that there is a way of using the right to challenge to enable charities, community groups and social enterprises to successfully bid to deliver services.
So, despite huge reservations, the overall response from civil society to the community rights agenda has been to see a glass half full. Or perhaps, if not half full, then at least an opportunity to have a good drink.
I don’t think people have particularly changed their minds…but the pragmatism of the not-for-profit sector has sought ways to turn the policy into a force for good.
The contrast with free schools, which I’ve been working on more recently, could not be more stark. Many of the same VCS people who have decided to do what they can to make community rights work, along with Teachers and other education professionals view free schools in a wholly negative light. No doubt there are key differences between them and perhaps there are good reasons not to embrace free schools. But there appears to be something inconsistent at play here.
Many free school objectors talk about privatisation, but that is just like community rights. So what has made sector leaders respond far more positively to community rights (albeit in a somewhat guarded way) than they do to free schools?
Could it be emotional? Our schools are precious to the British psyche and any perceived threat will be strongly opposed. But are our other public services valued less? I wouldn’t have thought so.
Or could it be that free schools are being set up by private companies tht many fear so much? That could be the case, and certainly I am nervous about the growing numbers of companies seeking profit that are setting up new schools.
But my reaction to that situation (coupled with local circumstances that leave comprehensive education in desperately short supply) is to make sure there is an alternative on offer. The alternative could be many schools being set up by parents and community groups that are community hubs and become a focal point, or hub, for community life.
Free schools do not have to be bad. They do not have to be good either. But I believe they have the potential to enable socially-minded groups to establish outstanding schools that can improve outcomes for children.
I am not for one minute suggesting we should not speak out against things we believe to be wrong. If public services are being dismantled then we must voice our concerns. But we also need to be realistic in where we are…and at present there is little prospect of Labour reversing the free schools approach (though I imagine some posturing and finessing would be likely). Remember this is a policy approach that was instigated by Labour with their academies programme. They may not like aspects of it (like the potential for private sector firms to dominate) but I see no prospect of them dismantling it. Like Community Rights, it may be changed under a different government, but the broad thrust of policy is likely to remain intact.
So we have a choice. Oppose free schools (or community rights) in all their forms and fight to oppose them, or find ways to bend the policy to produce the sort of outcomes we want in education and public services. Me, I’m going for the latter.
The pragmatism seen in response to Community Rights is sorely lacking when it comes to free schools. The government’s motivation may be dubious, the language may be wrong and the implementation may be clunky, but can we really afford to ignore the potential?