Today’s announcement by David Cameron that the Conservatives intend – should they be returned to office – to open an additional five hundred free schools is arguably the first genuine attempt we have seen from the Party during this election campaign to embrace an ideologically distinctive approach to education policy. With this promise to expand the free schools scheme, the Conservatives have adopted a policy that diametrically opposes Labour’s plans to kill the programme.
So what does the Prime Minister’s new plan for additional free schools tell us? One thing that it’s certainly not -=a grab for floating voters. Free schools are notably unpopular amongst the general public, with Conservative voters being the only group in which the programme enjoys majority support.
It is also not an attempt to engage in an honest intellectual debate regarding the utility of such schools. The report by Policy Exchange (a think-tank co-founded by free schools champion Michael Gove) used by Mr Cameron to help justify the expansion of the free schools scheme stretches the available data on the impact such schools have on raising local attainment to breaking point in order to reach the desired conclusions.
No doubt, the Prime Minister would argue that it is all part of the programme to raise school standards. However, the truth is more primal: expanding the free schools scheme is an attempt to shore up his party’s core vote by scratching – though not relieving – the persistent itch for a return to the grammar-type schools that afflicts many hard right Conservative party members and voters.
Mr Cameron knows full well that an outright embrace of a return to grammars would be politically toxic. Indeed, in 2007 he remarked: “Far from being some winning slogan, a pledge to build more grammar schools would be an electoral albatross.” But by subliminally spinning free schools as an elite but non-selective best of both worlds compromise, the Prime Minister hopes to tap into a desire for return to a lost world without alienating floating voters.