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Why Tristram Hunt is wrong about free schools

3 April 2014

‘I’ve come to exorcise you lot,’ said Tristram Hunt cheerfully, as he turned up to deliver the keynote speech in The Spectator’s schools conference today. He had come to explain why free schools, a project this magazine proudly supports, are going wrong. His speech was as elegant and clever as it was wrong, which is why it’s worth studying. We’ll post the audio of his speech soon, but here’s my take.

Hunt started by claiming the free school system is in meltdown, because a few of them have failed. He mentioned IES Breckland in Suffolk. Then Al-Madinah free school in Derby – so bad, he said, that Ofsted had to invent a new category of dysfunction. The Discovery New School in Crawley has closed. So surely, this shows that Gove’s project is in decline?

Quite the reverse. The whole idea is to allow bad schools to fail. Hunt quoted me saying that of you set up 300 businesses, 30 would fail. A rather modest estimate, he said. But allowing such failure would be writing down £5.5 billion. And he asked:

‘Can the British taxpayer afford such an enormous liability when it is explicitly predicated on the ground of organic waste? In the Labour Party, our answer has to be no. We believe in innovation, and will encourage it.’

I have no idea where he got his £5.5 billion figure from, but what is the cost of allowing failing schools to keep going? It is paid not by central government, but by the children who are forced to stay there. It is paid in their stymied life chances. I’d argue that identifying failing schools, and forcing them to take action or close, is one of the best things about Gove’s reforms. The American charter schools only started to pull ahead of state schools when they became more aggressive about closing bad ones.

Unqualified teachers

A member of the audience told Hunt how much he appreciated two brilliant, but unqualified teachers at his schools. What would happen to them under Labour? Hunt said, in effect, that if they were good they’d have no problem gaining the union-approved Qualified Teacher Status. And if they didn’t? Would they be sacked? His response:-

‘After a very long period of time, if they’re not interested in proving their skills, I don’t think there’s a place for them in English schools I’m focused on pupils rather than teachers who don’t want to – you know.’

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We know. We know that Hunt isn’t talking about teachers ‘improving skills’ – if they’re in the classroom, and are effective, there’s not much they can learn from going to Big Brother’s QTS system. It’s odd to hear Hunt, whose own private school used ‘unqualified’ teachers, toe the party line like this.


Hunt also devoted much of his speech to Sweden, saying how badly it did in the latest PISA report, the world league table of education. No other country had such slide, he said, so surely free schools fail? He did mention that the vast majority of   Swedish pupils are educated in its crisis-struck council-run schools. When the PISA survey was conducted in 2012, free schools educated just 12.6 per cent of Swedish pupils.

Also, let’s take Hunt’s curious idea that profit-seeking free schools are leading the decline in Sweden. The below graph shows school results for three groups. The first is council-run schools. Next is all free schools. And the third is the largest single chain of (profit-seeking) free schools: IES, whose Breckland school has had some problems.

I put this to Hunt, who had no answer. He muttered something about my ‘intimate knowledge of the Swedish catchment areas’. Not quite – it’s basic research, which he ought to have done. The theme of his speech was that free schools are failing in Sweden, which he seems to have based on the failure of state schools in Sweden.

So as Mr Hunt goes back to do more homework, I’d like to recommend this OECD report into why Sweden slid so much (pdf). The problem is in the rural areas, which don’t have competition from free schools. It’s tied up with Sweden council schools’ lax approach to discipline, which drove parents into despair – and into the corridors of free schools.


In the Q&A afterwards, Hunt dropped in that schools improved under Labour because they spent so much money. Again, he needs to do more research. That report I link to above makes clear that Swedish school spending is the 10th highest in the OECD – so let’s dispense with the idea (advanced by Gordon Brown) that cash matters.

Study after study proves no correlation between cash and outcome in schools. The below study maps cash (which wildly varies in English schools from £5k to£10k per pupil) against outcomes. There is no correlation:

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 10.22.00And if you don’t believe the Deloitte report? Then look at the conclusion of this OECD study. Here’s an extract:

‘There is no clear relationship between spending on education and performance, even after accounting for differences in purchasing power. In this group of countries, it is common to find substantially different levels of spending per student, yet similar mathematics performance. For example, while the Slovak Republic spends $53 160 per student, considerably less than Sweden, and the United States spends $115 961, considerable more, students in these countries perform around the same level as students in Sweden.

‘Trend data from 2003 to 2012 show that there is no relationship between increases in expenditure on education and changes in performance, either among high-spending or low-spending countries. Mexico, for example, is among the countries and economies with the greatest improvement in average mathematics performance between 2003 and 2012, but its level of expenditure remained stable between 2001 and 2011. Similar improvements in average performance were observed in Poland, where per- student cumulative expenditure nearly doubled during the period. In Sweden, expenditure per student increased by $25 911 between 2001 and 2011, close to what was observed in Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Poland and Norway.’

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Show comments
  • Fergus Pickering

    Why is Tristram Hunt wrong? Why, because he is Tristram Hunt of course

  • MrVeryAngry

    A ‘socialist’ (well sort of) lying? Quelle suprise

  • gelert

    Another Berkshire Hunt.

  • dado_trunking

    The Swedish privatised schooling model is bankrupt.
    It is the only large scale privatised schooling programme in the entire Baltic hemisphere, all others do not follow that model. So why get so hung up about it?

  • Nick

    I’m trying to work out whether that “Deloitte report” is actually a picture of either caviare or frog spawn.
    Would also point out that the one of the reasons schools fail is because the teachers are not up to their jobs. Why can this not be acknowledged? If I was a taxi driver and a lousy driver I would lose my job. If I was a chef and a lousy cook I would lose my job. Why are teachers in some way beyond reproach or censure?

  • la catholic state

    I have avoided and always will avoid secular state schools for my children. They seem to have no behavioural standards of note, no moral teaching, no culture and a complete indifference to bullying. Also…..they seem to discriminate against pupils from a Christian background (they certainly discriminate against Christian teachers).
    I have always chosen Catholic state schools….and Grammar schools. It is not the amount of money spent on education that counts….so much as the ethos and environment of a school. Secular schools seem brutish in this regard.

    • Matthew Rees

      The claim “they certainly discriminate against Christian teachers” is both pernicious and false. If you have the slightest evidence for that then take it up with the relevant authorities.

      • la catholic state

        The authrorities themselves discriminate against Christian teachers…..and back the schools.

        • Matthew Rees

          And your evidence for this is?

          • la catholic state

            A case involving Deptford Green school where a Christian teacher was sacked and banned from teaching in Britain for 4 years for his views on gay ‘marriage’. Disgusting.

            • Matthew Rees

              One case hardly makes an argument. Besides, it sounds that they were sacked for not supporting UK law, not for being Christian. Clearly we cannot have teachers who say that gay marriage is wrong any more than we could have any that say that paedophila is acceptable. The laws of the land are the laws of the land.

              • la catholic state

                Why not?! These are the teachers we want teaching our kids. UK law is not the word of God. And maybe next (if Labour get in) paedophilia will be acceptable under UK law. Anything is possible with pagans.

                I advise all parents of Christian heritage… avoid secular schools. They stink.

                • agneau

                  So you would be happy with Wesleyan or Scientology teachers or is it only your own brand of voodoo mojimbo you find acceptable?

                • la catholic state

                  I certainly don’t want secular mumbo jumbo and all that goes with it!! Catholicism will do fine!

                • agneau

                  Excuse my directness but you don’t appear to comprehend what secular actually means.

                • la catholic state

                  I certainly do. And Im not impressed.

              • la catholic state

                And should any teacher ever say to my children that gay ‘marriage’ is right….they will be told otherwise in no uncertain terms.

              • Fergus Pickering


  • Matthew Rees

    You have to admire the determination of somebody prepared to go to such lengths to defend the expensive fiasco of free schools (they are not free, Gove has more power over them than any previous SoS has had) but there is no getting away from the basic facts that these new schools are no better than traditional schools, have done nothing to meet increasing pupil demand and are frightfully expensive. And worse, some very good schools have been forced to close to provide buildings for them. Free Schools was a bonkers idea from a bonkers SoS.

    • HookesLaw

      They are free for people to set up they are free from local govt control. Like all schools they are subject to regulation
      You are as thick as Hunt.
      If there were nothing wrong with state schools why would anyone want to set up a free one?

      • Matthew Rees

        The thickness is yours as you clearly you know nothing about schools. What control do you think the LG has over schools in its area exactly?

    • the baracus

      “..And worse, some very good schools have been forced to close to provide buildings for them..”
      Are you sure you didn’t just make that statement up to support your own view? Which “good” schools have been forced to close, and who defined them as good – you? Can you name them?

    • Mooker

      So which “very good” schools have been shut down to provide buildings?

  • DWWolds

    And, Mr Hunt, are we supposed to believe that none of the state schools under local authority control ever fail? This is another area in which your research seems to have failed you. To widen your knowledge you might start by looking at the situation in Nottingham City where the only schools that seem to be succeeding are the two High Schools – private of course.

    • Matthew Rees

      Of course state schools fail, nobody is denying that, but given the small number of free schools (c200 out of c25, 000) the number that have failed is disproportionally very high.

      • Hackney Hal

        You are wrong. The number of state schools that are judged by Ofsted to be inadequate (ie. failing) is 3%. So that is in fact higher than the % of free schools so judged. Sorry.

  • anyfool

    Hunt is a man with no interest in schools, he also has no real interest in the Labour Party except in the sense that he tied his political future to it because he saw a weak and desperate ideology flailing around for a reason to exist.
    His self regard presumes he could just jump on this ship of fools and steer it where he, in his own legendry mind thinks it ought to go, this is why he does not bother with any due diligence.
    He is a spitting image of Robert Kilroy Silk and will shaft the Labour Party, as RKS tried to do to UKIP, hopefully he will succeed beyond his own witless imagination.

  • Colonel Mustard

    Labour will never accept free schools. The clue is in the word ‘free’.

    The article doesn’t surprise me. I’ve always though Hunt overrated, inexperienced and not as bright as his academic credentials suggest. As Education Secretary he would be disastrous for all schools in Britain.

    • HookesLaw

      Well you are right – can you imagine someone as thick and stupid as him in charge of education.

      • Matthew Rees

        I’m sure that Hunt would welcome a head-to-head intelligence test against you. As would I. And my cat.

        • Colonel Mustard

          Says the man who creates silly anti-Tory Tory posters.

        • Smithersjones2013

          So you think your cat can do intelligence tests do you?

        • Hexhamgeezer

          Hunt serves no other purpose other than that of rhyming slang.

    • telemachus

      But he has the nub that Fraser’s take does not amplify sufficiently
      It is morally repugnant to create a system assuming a percent of schools will fail
      This condemns the children in such schools to substandard and declining education for irreplaceable years
      I have seen no one explain how this educational social Darwinism can be justified

      • McRobbie

        It seems you are happy to condemn pupils in failing state schools to continue to fail …it seems even more repugnant to accept failure as long as its state led failure. More socialist cant, mediocrity for ever is the outcry from left wingers and then spend more on failure to cover labours and their union masters inability / unwilllingness to take effective actions.

        • telemachus

          Why not put effort into improving failing schools and remotivating teachers therein
          I repeat the social Darwinism peddled by the Doctrinaire Gove is morally wrong
          At the expense of being vilified for hagiography Tristram is beginning to work on the right lines

      • Colonel Mustard

        What condemns children is several decades of the dogma-driven socialist domination of education, beginning with Crosland’s nasty demolition of the centuries old social mobility provided by grammar schools.

        Still we should be grateful. I predicted you would eventually turn up to ‘tag’ the top comment once the thread had expanded . I expected the silly term “social Darwinism” to be peddled again. But the predicted and even sillier hagiography of “Tristram”, hate speech against Gove and boasting about 2015 has not materialised. Small mercies.

      • HJ777

        What is morally repugnant is creating and perpetuating a system of schools where schools are kept open and pupils given little choice but to attend them, even though it is admitted that they are failing.

        Which is what happens here in the state sector.

      • kyalami

        It is indeed repugnant. Why do we allow it in the state school system?

      • MrVeryAngry

        It is morally repugnant to create a system assuming a percent of schools will fail Eh? That’s exactly what the current system does, only it doesn’t assume that they will fail, it ensures they will because of its authoritarian, top down centrally planned structure. And anyway, what is ‘failure’ in this context? The appalling record of state run education since 1997 (and earlier) has failed possibly millions of students.

      • Hexhamgeezer


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