In yet another setback to the implementation of the British Conservatives party's free school policy, the leader of their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, declared recently that entry requirements would not be relaxed to accommodate for-profit development. His concerns arise from scepticism that organisations motivated by maximising the benefit to their investors can possibly have a contribution to make to improving social mobility.
While apparently convinced of the free school effect, and prepared – sensibly – to concede that there is nothing intrinsic to the business framework that precludes a commitment to quality, Clegg suggested that admitting profit would only further skew implementation of the policy to the benefit of the middle classes.
Doing away with the requirement that new school proposals should be parent initiated and led, and allowing businesses to make the running, would only accentuate a tendency he claimed was already evident – for providers to cater only for relatively well-off communities, so avoiding the additional costs and risks associated with overcoming socio-economic disadvantage.
Clegg may be right that – in a system where the level of funding is prescribed by government, caps are placed on surpluses, and there is no scope for providers to evolve high-end models and charge top-up fees – then intervention to prioritise resources to the neediest areas, and application of a pupil premium-style incentive may be necessary. He is wrong, though, to suggest that profit-making and a commitment to creating opportunities for the disadvantaged are fundamentally incompatible.
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