Labour backs parent-led schools, shadow minister insists
Labour is "on the side" of parents who want to set up schools and would not shut most existing free schools, the new shadow education secretary insists.
Tristram Hunt told the BBC Labour backed "enterprise and innovation" when it came to increasing school places.
He said a Labour government would push ahead with what it called parent-led academies in areas of educational need.
Tory chairman Grant Shapps said Labour's policy was unchanged and it still opposed the "popular" schools.
Free schools, set up by parents and other groups and operating outside local authority control, have been established under a policy pioneered by Education Secretary Michael Gove.
More than 170 have been opened across England since September 2011.
Labour has been accused by the government of sending out mixed messages about the party's support, opposing their roll-out nationally but backing schools locally.'Vanity project'
Mr Hunt, who has just taken over from Stephen Twigg as the party's education spokesman, said he regretted previously describing free schools as a "vanity project for yummy mummies". He made the comments in 2010 shortly after becoming an MP.
It may not be a policy u-turn but it is a definite change of tone from the party which has opposed free schools since Michael Gove first announced them following the 2010 general election.
Labour claimed the policy would allow middle-class parents to set up elitist state schools.
As recently as June this year, the then shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg pledged that if Labour won the next election it would end the building of free schools and reassert local oversight of academy schools.
So how big a change is this?
Mr Twigg also said existing free schools and those already in the pipeline would continue.
Mr Hunt has reiterated that now, saying Labour will keep "the good free schools" if it wins power.
He said he wants to see more "parent-led academies" run by social entrepreneurs and able to set their own curriculum - but only in areas of need.
Labour say it's not a change in policy, but it is a change of heart for the new shadow education secretary, who as the newly elected MP for Stoke-on-Trent in 2010, described free schools as a "vanity project for yummy mummies".
Mr Hunt told BBC One's Andrew Marr programme Labour would not open new free schools "along the Michael Gove model", but that the bulk of existing free schools would be kept open as his party wanted to "keep the good free schools".
Citing the case of the Al-Madinah free school in Derby, which was closed for a week earlier this month on the first day of an Ofsted inspection, Mr Hunt said Labour would not allow schools to become an "ideological experiment".
Education Minister Lord Nash has warned the school would be closed unless "unacceptable" teaching standards improved.
Its acting head teacher said there were areas the school needed to address and it was co-operating with Ofsted.
"What is going on with the Al-Madinah school is a terrifying example of the mistakes of Michael Gove's education policy," he said.'Properly qualified'
New schools, he added, should only be opened in areas where there was a shortage of places, where "properly qualified" staff could be recruited and where institutions were financially accountable.
End Quote Grant Shapps Conservative Party chairman
This is the same old Labour policy. Free schools will only be allowed in specific circumstances in specific areas with a whole load of bureaucracy attached”
Under Labour's plans, parent-led academies would enable parent groups and other organisations to set up schools outside local authority control, although local authorities would have greater powers to intervene when there were concerns about standards.
"If you are a group of parents, social entrepreneurs and teachers interested in setting up a school in areas where you need new school places, then the Labour government will be on your side.
"We are in favour of enterprise and innovation."
But a Conservative Party spokesman said shadow chancellor Ed Balls had made it clear in a speech in June that the party would curb new schools in areas where they was an "excess" of places.
Mr Balls had suggested a future Labour government would prioritise resources on areas where school places were in "short supply".
Mr Shapps told the BBC: "This is the same old Labour policy. Free schools will only be allowed in specific circumstances in specific areas with a whole load of bureaucracy attached.
"Free schools have been driving up standards. They are hugely popular with parents and up to now Labour have fought tooth and nail against them including voting against them and what they said today has changed absolutely nothing."
Journalist Toby Young, who helped set up a free school in west London, said Mr Hunt had been "less than candid" about Labour's policy as it was considering granting councils the power of veto over free schools in their boroughs.
Writing in his blog for the Daily Telegraph, Mr Young - who has said he is considering of applying to be a Conservative candidate at the next election - said this would be a "retrograde step" since councils would be unlikely to approve new schools close to existing ones which were under-performing.
Mr Hunt said there needed to be more focus on vocational education with support for further education colleges and apprenticeships in industry.