Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced free schools would not be run for profit as he sought to reassure Liberal Democrat sceptics that the policy will improve social mobility.
As schools bear the brunt of the blame for the riots, and for the "lost youth" of today, Clegg emphasised the importance of not condemning a whole generation.
Yes, our country has problems but they will not be solved by denigrating our teachers and our schools. We won’t get more young people to take responsibility for themselves, or find work, if all we do is perpetuate the myth that no-one under the age of 25 can be trusted. There were young people on the streets rioting last month. They should face the full force of the law. But there were young people on the streets cleaning up the next day, too. And we cannot let our anxieties about some parts of our society undermine the hopes and dreams of a generation.
Clegg outlined new measures which the government hopes will mean everyone will have access to high quality education.
His proposals include:
- Starting September next year, all schools will be allowed to prioritise those who qualify for the pupil premium scheme.
- Local democratic accountability for all schools.
- Excluded pupils may become the responsibility of the schools which expelled them, and could remain on the school's performance tables.
- Encouraging free schools to be established in the poorest areas where they offer the greatest benefit.
- No schools should ever be run for profit.
The university and college union (UCU) welcomed Clegg's comments but outlined concerns the same commitment had not been extended to colleges and universities. UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "Over half of his own backbenchers have voiced concerns about the issue and he needs to put pressure on his coalition partners."
But Clegg's assurance free schools would not be for profit has been attacked by a member of the institute of economic affairs. James Croft, education fellow at the institution said: "Rather than being socially divisive, evidence shows giving schools greater freedom over curriculum and teaching priorities stimulates innovation and drives up standards."
Mr Croft used Sweden as an example to back up his argument for-profit schools invest to ensure high-quality outcomes. He also insisted the impact of for-profit institutions was greatest on those from low socio-economic backgrounds.
The free school ideology has taken a battering by the recent revelations of fast-track funding and Whitehall officials using private Hotmail accounts to pressurise primaries. The new school model has also faced criticisms from education campaigners such as Melissa Benn. The activist has attacked the coalition for introducing the schools to an already complex system in the hope of solving social mobility problems. "They [the government] are very keen to say this is to provide education for the poor children the state system is letting down. The jury’s out on that. There’s something very muddy in the whole thing."
But Clegg insisted the new school system would provide a "decent start" for every child. "I want free schools to be available to the whole community, not just the privilege few. They must not cream off the best pupils while leaving the rest to fend for themselves."
Advocating the £2.5bn pupil premium scheme, Clegg placed emphasis on schools focusing their attentions on "closing the gap between disadvantaged children and their better off classmates".
Clegg's speech coincides with figures released from the Department for Education (DfE) showing two thirds of free schools are oversubscribed for their first year. Moorlands School, Luton, received 420 applications for 115 places, while the West London free school, Hammersmith and Fulham, received more than 500 applications for only 120 places.
The DfE's statistics also back up Clegg's claim the schools will address social mobility issues. Based on Super Output Areas data, nine schools are located in the 20 percent most deprived communities while half the schools (12) are in the 30 per cent most deprived communities.
Minister for schools Lord Hill said: "These schools will offer local children a great education. It's not surprising many are oversubscribed."
Teachers running Cuckoo Hall Academy, decided to set up a free school in Edmonton so they could reach more children in North London.
Patricia Sowter, executive principal of the academies trust which runs both schools, said: "I knew these children could succeed, despite the deprivation and despite what seemed to be a mindset of low expectations at the local authority."