19/10/2011 19:41 BST | Updated 19/12/2011 05:12 GMT

The Free Schools Programme is Important - and Labour are Confused

There has been a good deal of debate over the last few days over where the Labour Party now stand on the Government's free school programme, prompting new education spokesperson Stephen Twigg to clarify his position in the Guardian comment pages.

To revisit briefly, the germ of this debate and Twigg's latest article: last Friday, an interview appeared in the Liverpool Daily Post entitled 'I will back free schools, says Labour's new shadow education minister Stephen Twigg'. This was a significant (and extremely welcome) shift.

Free schools, both to supporters and those who oppose them are rightly identified as a flagship coalition policy, central to Michael Gove's drive to improve the supply of good schools and to free the education system from bureaucracy. Hence, no great surprise that Labour's apparent u-turn was picked up in a number of national newspapers, including the Guardian on the Saturday.

Yet by Sunday, some speculate after intervention from his party's leadership, Twigg was singing from a very different song-sheet, telling Sky news viewers in no uncertain terms that he did oppose the policy.

In his clarification, Twigg essentially makes two points. Firstly, that the media has blown his words out of proportion because it is obsessed with 'u-turns'. And secondly that the free schools programme is a distraction from the challenge of turning our schools into engines of excellence and social mobility.

The first point merits little attention. Even the briefest look at Stephen's comments over the past few days reveals a significant change in position. First of all the Labour leadership was implacably opposed to Free Schools. Then Stephen Twigg was 'welcoming' and 'congratulating' the latest batch of Free Schools. And just days later he was 'opposing' them again. As Telegraph columnist Ben Brogan commented, 'try the other one Stephen'.

But regardless of all that, the truth is that the government was ready to applaud Twigg for adopting a sensible position, not to attack him for the fact that it represented a change in direction. The government knows that lasting reform needs consensus.

The second point, on the importance or otherwise of free schools, deserves more attention though it is equally wrong. Obviously introducing free schools wasn't going to generate magically hundreds of new schools at once, but the numbers will grow and they are both a bellwether and a cornerstone of what the government is trying to achieve - more autonomy for teachers, more choice for parents.

Besides, to say that free schools are not important because of their current relatively small number is rather like saying in May 2010 that Labour's academies policy wasn't important because there were only 200 or so of them. The coalition government thought it was important, which is why less than 18 months later, a third of all secondary schools are academies.

Perhaps the most telling passage of Twigg's article comes when he laments 'Gove's outdated obsession with structures' and argues that it is standards that matter - a bogus argument that was pursued with vigour by Andy Burnham. The best answer to it that I can think of is this:

"Labour came to power in 1997 saying it was 'standards not structures' that mattered. In other words: forget about the complex, institutional structural reforms; what counts is what works, and by that we meant outputs. It was fine as a piece of rhetoric; and positively beneficial as a piece of politics. Unfortunately, it was bunkum as a piece of policy. The whole point is that structures beget standards."

The author? Tony Blair. And if you're wondering what he thinks on free schools, his former aide John McTernan offered a clue yesterday, commenting on Twigg's apparent confusion:

"Free schools have got to be a Labour policy. Check the DNA. Pure Blair. Pure Adonis. From when we won elections."

Sadly for McTernan, they aren't. And sadly for Twigg, the free schools programme - and what Labour thinks about it - does matter. Their confusion matters to the thousands of parents and teachers already involved in free schools and the tens of thousands who will be.

The simple fact is that Twigg's attempts to draw a line under the confusion, only draw further attention to it. Or to paraphrase Shakespeare, methinks he doth protest too much.