Free Schools – who pays the bill?

Michael Gove’s flagship policy is that of enabling groups of parents, charities and other interested parties to set up ‘Free Schools’. On the face of it, Free Schools sound like a great idea. As a parent of three boys, there has been many a time when I’ve been frustrated with an aspect of how their school is run. I have thought ‘Give it to me. I’ll run it better myself.’ But although I am a very determined, well-motivated and capable person, I am well aware that setting up and running a school is nowhere near as straightforward as it looks. Some of the well publicised campaigns such as writer Toby Young’s West London Free School, have stated that they will employ a separate company to do this for them. At first glance this seems like a good idea. But where’s the money coming from? Surely money spent on middle men such as this is a waste. Wouldn’t that money be better spent on teachers, teaching assistants and a committed and passionate Head? I am assuming that such schools as Mr Young’s would not want to make a profit but this does not seem to be prohibited in Michael Gove’s plans and clearly if you build in a percentage profit, even less taxpayers’ money will be spent on educating children.

In terms of improving standards, a claim made by Mr Gove, I am not at all sure how giving schools greater freedom over the curriculum will ensure higher standards. It will be extremely difficult to measure and compare quality and performance across schools which have widely varying curriculums. This will not support parent choice. There has been much talk of the new policy being based on a Swedish model. The very same model has been discredited in Sweden. Mona Sahlin wrote in the Guardian: ‘the Swedish authorities’ own research has concluded that over the last fifteen years since the free schools were introduced, the number of low performing pupils has increased in Sweden, while the high performing pupils have neither increased in numbers nor have they become more successful.’

In areas where parents are educated, organised and have sufficient time and energy to set up Free Schools, there are already perfectly ‘good’ schools with high SATs results and good/outstanding OFSTED judgements. These schools are very well supported by active parent Governors and PTAs. Nothing is broken so no need to fix it. In deprived areas, schools struggle through lack of parental confidence in participating in Governing bodies, which means that Heads and teachers do not get the informed support they need. They have low SATs results because of the nature of many of the families they cater for who have not enjoyed a good standard of living or benefited from a good education. Parents in deprived areas are not motivated enough or educated enough to start up and run a school. They will be excluded from this policy which is supposedly increasing fairness. Free Schools will be paid for from money diverted from other parts of the education budget through cuts to excellent schemes such as ‘Every Child a Reader’ and one-to-one tuition. These schemes help deprived children to catch up. Rather than enhancing the fairness of society, Free Schools will reward the ‘haves’ and punish the ‘have-nots’.

this was originally posted on the MumsRock website

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2 Responses to Free Schools – who pays the bill?

  1. Mart Layton says:

    Your concerns regarding Free Schools are not entirely without foundations – after all this is a Tory policy, so there will be some nefarious Friedmanite scheme behind it all – but I can’t help thinking that you are doing a huge disservice to those parents who live in economically disadvantaged areas. Although they may face greater barriers as they try to access ‘good’ educational provision, a lack of motivation is by no means a necessary adjunct to poverty as you seem to suggest. Given the appropriate support – and there are plenty of philanthropic groups who want to do this – these communities would relish the opportunity to participate so fully in the education of their children. And this could, if the Left could only see it, be a real opportunity to tackle problems of social mobility this country so glaringly faces.

    State schools are often too large, deliver too narrow and proscribed a curriculum, and are too obsessed with standardized testing to affect such change. And, when you consider that a disproportional number of MPs have no personal experience of state education at all. and therefore little vested interest in seeing it succeed, it is unrealistic to expect the current system to affect any profound social change whatsoever.

    Small scale, non-selective, community based schools with the freedom to decide their own curriculum and pedagogical approach have more of a chance of achieving this aim. In fact, this is the very approach that many on the libertarian Left have been dreaming of.

    This is not to say that Free Schools shouldn’t be held accountable to public bodies, nor is it to suggest that this is an easy, catch-all solution to a huge and complex problem; just that the Left needs to be more open to the possibilities that Gove has unwittingly thrown its way.

    • anpa2001 says:

      Hi, thanks for your reply and sorry for the delay in replying – OFSTED appeared yesterday (we have no notice inspections in childcare so it is particularly stressful!). Anyway, I was interested to hear your views. I agree that smaller schools are far better but don’t agree with so much autonomy. I think there does need to be consistency and regulation over many aspects of the curriculum and structure and this helps equal access.

      I write (not terribly well, I know!) from personal experience and the area I work in has very deprived families (10-15% IDACI scores). These families are not motivated. They are busy fighting debt, domestic violence, drug addicted partners and extreme poverty. This is how it is. They simply don’t have the energy to set up a school; attending an informal, drop-in parents’ afternoon with free on-site childcare proves difficult. We try really hard to engage with our families (today, OFSTED awarded my setting a judgement of ‘outstanding’ for working in partnership with parents and carers so it’s not due to a lack of effort or achievement on my part or that of my staff).

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