There has been a lively debate at Liberal Democrat Voice on Niklas Smith's defence of free schools. This is in response to a motion due to be debated at the Lib Dem conference later this month effectively calling on Lib Dems to oppose at local level any attempts to set up free schools.
Niklas is promoting an amendment to the motion, asking delegates to endorse a more positive view of free schools and I am happy to support this. While I have my reservations about the free school idea, particularly that they may undermine local education authorities (LEAs), my view is that the pros outweigh the cons. While some may see free schools as part of a right-wing agenda, I see them as in the Liberal community politics tradition of giving power back to the people. It means that if people really are dissatisfied with the schools in their area they can actually do something themselves to change things. And in fact LEAs now have very little power over the management of schools, which can lead to all power being invested in the headteacher with a compliant governing body providing little effective scrutiny of how public money is being spent. Precisely because free schools will be the product of grassroots community iniative they may be more democratic and accountable than LEA schools.
So the idea needs to be given a chance and in my view it would be short-sighted and wrong for conference to reject free schools out of hand.