The Lib-Cons are putting ‘free schools’ slap-bang in the middle of their education plans for the first term (although this agenda is much more ‘Con’, than ‘Lib’ – Michael Gove’s in the driving seat). The plan – based on a Swedish idea – is to open up the management of schools to parents, charities and businesses, with new management structures shaking things up, bringing nothing short of a ‘schools revolution’.
Will it work?
The answer of course is: who knows? But if I was pushed (not too hard), I would say ‘no’. In fact, push (just a little harder) then I would say free could be disastrous.
I’ve had a look around some of the recent commentary on free schools. This, it seems, is the case against:
1. Where’s the money coming from for free schools?
Budgets are tight – and are only going to get tighter as the Lib-Con squeeze on spending continues in the months ahead. So, in this time of frugality, how are free schools going to be funded? They will incur capital costs, as well as revenue to pay for teachers, teaching assistants, cooks and all the other people it takes to run a school. The evidence from Sweden shows a ‘significant increase’ in costs in order to set the schools up. After a decade of free schools, areas with a high proportion of free schools had a higher than average cost-per-pupil.
This doesn’t look good for the long-term, but what about next year? The Institute for Fiscal Studies explains that free schools are to be funded from the Building Schools for the Future budget. Whether or not you think is a wise re-allocation of funds, this money-stream is due to run dry in 2011.
So, given that free schools are going to find it impossible to get going in time for the new school year in 2010, where’s the money coming to pay for them from 2011 onwards?
To hazard a guess, free schools will be paid for from a re-allocation of existing school budgets – this will mean front-line cuts coming to a school near you.
2. Will free schools raise standards?
This is a real sticking point, but it’s questionable whether free schools raise standards. The ‘Trends in International Maths and Science Study’ ranks England eight places higher than Sweden. Where free schools have raised standards, critics suggest it’s because they’ve creamed off the best students which in turn gives them better results.
Before the election, a certain Liberal Democrat leader described free schools as a ‘disaster for standards’. On this one, I agree with Nick.
3. Do parents really want to set up their own schools?
Apparently, the number of parent groups who have shown an interest in starting their own school has ‘surged’ to 550. Now, call me an old cynic, but that number seems ridiculously low. What’s the ratio between the number of people who phone to find out about a job and those who actually apply – maybe one in ten? More pertinently – how many actually get the job – one in fifty? I struggle to see this ‘surge’ translating into more than a handful of free schools, certainly not the ‘hundreds’ anticipated by Michael Gove.
Parents – in any great number – simply don’t want to run their own school. Most find the idea preposterous. Sure, there will be very active parents here and there but that will be it: actually running a school has very limited appeal to parents (where’s the time in any given day?).
Advocates will no doubt wheel out Toby Young who always seems to pop up at this point. He seems a nice chap and makes a good fist of arguing for free schools. But do you remember the Sinclair C5? To me, Toby Young is the Clive Sinclair of the free school movement: a likeable, enthusiastic advocate for a product that is ultimately doomed to failure. Like the C5, free-schools will prompt some head-scratching and the words: ‘but why would I want one of those?’
4. How will free schools help struggling schools?
Let me state the obvious: schools exist. They may be good, bad or indifferent but they are there, lurking on a street corner near you. If a school is struggling – let’s say a change of Head has meant some upheaval (or, indeed, a free school has poached all the good teachers): is it not wiser to help the school, rather than to turn on our collective heels and set up another new one two doors down? What happens to the existing school? More importantly: what happens to the children in the school if the free school can’t take them because it’s still being set up (or is full). Are they left to wither in a school that is having all it’s resources slowly stripped away? I can’t see how this will do anything but increase the gap between the educational-haves and the have-nots.
5. Who will get into free schools (and who won’t!)?
If free schools have more control over their admissions policies, there’s the risk that the difficult, challenging children (you know – the naughty ones) will be kept out. Isn’t there? What about children with special educational needs? Or children who speak English as a second language? Where is the incentive (or the requirement) to provide a decent education for these children? Where will they go? To the local school that’s been there all along; a school that is slowly being run into the ground because – guess what – the free school down the road gets better exam results.
6. Are the Swedes advocates for Swedish free schools?
Remarkably, even the Swedes aren’t that keen on the Swedish system. Their education minister, Bertil Ostberg, said the schools were a failure and has warned Britain not to introduce them. He said: ‘We have actually seen a fall in the quality of Swedish schools since the free schools were introduced.’
Oh dear – does anyone agree with Michael?
7. Do we want schools to make a profit?
There are those who are hugely in favour of free schools. Big business, both here in the UK and overseas, are currently salivating at the prospect of making money from our schools system. One provider has said they would be keen to get involved, if they could run ‘thousands’ of schools.
Do we really want our schools to make money? Are there mechanisms in place to prevent the curriculum being unduly influenced – nutrition lessons brought to you by Nestle, anyone? Businesses will want to cut costs – less qualified teachers would be much cheaper: is this what we want?
8. What happens if – when – a free school fails?
Big business – let’s call this one Muck-Ed – sets up a chain of free schools. All goes well until a subsidiary, completely unconnected to their education business, hits the rocks. Muck-Ed needs to take drastic action, so closes its schools.
Who picks up the pieces? Where do the children go? Yup, back to the local school we go – the one that’s been there all along.
So: that’s the case against, or some of the case at least. It doesn’t look good. It seems crackers to put so much energy into a system that doesn’t seem to have worked. I’m not sure there’s much of an appetite for free schools – certainly not compared to people who just want a decent state school nearby: so, shouldn’t we focus on this instead?
There is of course one, guaranteed, evidence-based, sure-fire, relatively cheap way of improving schools in this country. That’s for my next blog…