If you were to ask a member of the current government whether they would ever run the risk of their own children getting a worse education for the sake of upholding a political principle (for example by sending them to an under-performing secular school instead of a higher-achieving religious one, or a dreaded “bog standard comprehensive” instead of a private school), do you think it’s likely they’d say yes? Most likely the response you’d get would be some variant on “well, principles are all very well, but when it comes down to it you’ve got to do what’s best for your kids, haven’t you?”
This isn’t a completely unreasonable position to take – wanting to do what you think is best for your children is, generally, an admirable trait. The funny thing is, though, that it’s becoming increasingly clear that in his infinite selflessness Michael Gove is perfectly at peace with sacrificing the educations of any number of children for the sake of his political principles. The Al-Madinah Free School debacle has made it abundantly clear that (shockingly enough) giving people state funding to set up and run Free Schools wherever and however they like results in some of these new schools doing a monumentally awful job of educating their students.
What’s truly extraordinary is that no one in the government seems to have considered that there might be a risk of this sort of thing happening to Free schools until now. If you introduce market forces into a sector because you think that’s the only way to spur dynamism and innovation, it shouldn’t be too much of a shock when that sector starts behaving like a market and produces winners and losers. The trouble is that the real losers aren’t the failing schools themselves (though it seems extremely likely that Al-Madinah won’t be the last of those) but rather the children attending those schools. They not only get a poor education while they’re at the failing school, but if it closes down they have their education (and social lives) disrupted by having to move school (if there are even spare school places available where they live, which all too often there won’t be).
There’s an obvious, glaring tension between this and the state’s supposed duty to provide a decent education for every child. Local authority-run state schools can fail too, of course, but there’s massively more scope for things to go wrong at free schools – the staff at local authority-run schools are generally actual qualified teachers, for one thing. Yet the government is pressing ahead with this policy all the same, despite the risks to the education of the children who attend the potentially-failing Free Schools. Presumably that’s OK in Michael Gove’s eyes if it’s not his children who are involved.