SINCE Labour came to power in 1997 proclaiming education its priority, one grand policy after another has foundered. Schools were told to run themselves–but forbidden to do the things that matter most, such as paying good teachers more. Parents were encouraged to choose schools–but with too few attractive ones to choose from, many were rejected by the schools they selected. They were urged to lobby local government for new schools–but were largely ignored when they did so. A total of two “parent-promoted” schools actually opened.
The opposition Conservatives, who are on course to form the next government, will be making much of their own grand plans for schools at their party conference beginning on October 4th. Citing Sweden’s “free-school” reforms of the 1990s as their model, they say they will smash the state’s monopoly by funding new schools, to be run by charities or groups of parents, as generously as state ones. Michael Gove, their schools spokesman, reckons that 220,000 new places–as many as 500 schools–might be made available during their first term in office. The policy could see new suppliers responding to demand, innovating and competing to drive up standards. It could be a revolution.
Or it could be another almighty flop. Among the pessimists is Anders Hultin, an architect of Sweden’s reforms and co-founder of Kunskapsskolan, the country’s largest chain of free schools. He now works for GEMS, a Dubai-based chain of commercial schools operating in nine countries, including Britain. Of Sweden’s 1,000-odd free schools, three-quarters are run for profit, he points out–but the Tories, afraid of the charge that they plan to hand little children over to big business, would ban schools from making profits. “I think it is a tactical decision,” says Mr Hultin. “But it will surely mean fewer schools opening.”