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Why Free Schools Would Cost Education

June 28, 2010

Jim Sweetman @jimbo0948

This is a longer version of my Labour List Post

There has been a lot written in the last week about Michael Gove’s plans to allow groups to develop free schools operating independently and out of local authority control. Labour in opposition is smarting from being described as anti-libertarian by voters worried about issues like detention without trial and identity cards so it does not want to be seen as simply promoting a negative and centralist view.

The Liberal Democrats, strongly opposed to such schools in opposition, have gone weak at the knees. The Conservative party remains anachronistically dedicated to driving wedges between local government and education even when their own party and its coalition allies actually run most of it. And, of course, everyone can imagine the perfect free school depending on their values and beliefs, the people they would want to let in and the ones they would like to keep out. There is not much sensible reflection going on.

Added to this mix is the rumour and hyperbole about what goes on in Sweden and the United States. The Swedish free school experiment could certainly not be described as a success and that is in a country which has a long history of social homogeneity. The American Charter Schools did produce some excellent results but almost always in areas of social disadvantage which were in the process of becoming gentrified. They have not impacted on social deprivation as is sometimes claimed although they may have accelerated gentrification. So, beneath the froth, why don’t free schools make sense?

To start with the basics, every modern state needs a national system of education. Every child is entitled to the best possible education and it is the duty of the state to set minimum standards and maximum expectations. Equality of access is a prerequisite of such a system. The curriculum entitlement is also important but so is the supply of carefully selected, trained and quality assured teachers and shared understandings about progress and transfer from one level of the system to another.

The free schoolers will argue that this is exactly what they intend to deliver but they would like to manage the curriculum in slightly different ways and have more capacity to hire and fire teachers and to pay them differentially. Their argument is that they take the basic state provision and then add to it in beneficial ways. Why doesn’t this stack up? Well, if their way is better, that is what the state should be delivering but if their notion of better is creationism, no sex education, radical Islam or Latin and Greek then that is not the best possible education for children. What is more, the state has the duty to protect the rights of children in terms of their entitlement to education. We have never let extremist sects and political groups educate children outside the maintained system because we believe it is wrong in terms of society’s core values.

Now, we need to face some unpalatable facts. Independent schools and religious schools appear already to have much the same freedoms which the free schoolers are asking for. And, they pose the same risks for children. There isn’t really any commonsense doubt that such schools do propagandise and seek to inculcate the values of the group rather than those of society. Independent schools and Catholic schools, whatever their strengths in whatever areas, seek to produce parents who will, in turn, send their children to those schools. They perpetuate the social divide. Most voters are accustomed to this particular status quo but they start to feel a little anxious at the thought of Muslim and Evangelical schools. There is something not quite right here and what we need to do is to go back to first principles and not make further compromises and fudges.

We have to think hard about choice which is a major part of the free school mantra. Choice is good but diversity is a real problem in education. However it is framed or delivered, the diverse approach means that some children get a worse, not a different, deal. Just as we came to understand that diversity in terms of skin colour was racist we need to face up to the fact that separate development and educational apartheid is equally illegitimate in the 21st-century. Everyone who proposes a free school believes that their school will benefit the pupils who attend but that creates a negative benefit for those who do not. This isn’t some kind of theoretical argument. For years, schooling in inner London has suffered because wealthy and aspiring parents did not use the maintained system. If they had used it, that system would be fine but they don’t. They pursue their own interests and what they believe to be those of their children. In most areas, it is the duty of the state to legislate against self-interest in favour of social interests but free schools operate in favour of self-interest and not rights and entitlements as their proponents sometimes suggest.

It is interesting to look at Toby Young’s proposals for a free school in Acton in the light of all this. This is an area which is gentrifying so there should be no difficulty in recruiting the necessary 750 pupils. Their parents will be drawn by the school’s emphasis on academic rigour, good behaviour and competition. There will be an emphasis on languages and science and, of course, on Latin. The steering committee contains a stockbroker, a mobile phone executive and the wife of a diplomat. The school will be open to anyone but even the steering committee recognises that it will be oversubscribed. The current proposal in response to this is a lottery but if that was really required why not allow the local authority to provide the pupils? And there, of course, is the rub. This school can present itself in ways so that the right children apply and the wrong are discouraged – a process assisted by the fact that the most disadvantaged usually attend their nearest school. This school will not have a preferential catchment area like a maintained school so, it can draw supportive, aspiring parents from across a wide area of West London and it will, inevitably, impact on the maintained system. It will probably also be a success and the damage will not be immediately apparent.

The next problem with free schools is structural. It simply isn’t any use assuming that any community can define its own educational needs in a vacuum. Once again, the self-interest of parents will come into play. The small village will have an emotional self-interest in keeping the small village school open ignoring the fact that it is uneconomic, unable to provide the range of teaching required and is in continued decline as the population shrinks. Where reorganisation is proposed in the shires in, for example, moving from a three tier to a two tier system, the parents wi
ll vote for the retention of middle schools because that is what they know and where their emotional attachment lies. In spite of all the evidence that children in middle schools make slower progress in year 7 and 8 than do those in secondary schools with more opportunities and specialist teaching, people prefer to stick with what they know. That is a perfectly reasonable human response but, sometimes, it is the duty of the state to modify it.

Time for more confessions! The state system has been lamentably bad in responding to the needs of parents from all sorts of communities. It has reacted to all kinds of bad advice from government, national strategies, examination boards and politicians. Everyone thinks they’re an expert in education on the basis of their experience of a particular form of it and so they also think they know what’s wrong with it. In practice, our education system has been monocultural, unbalanced in terms of knowledge and enquiry, prescriptive in pointless areas and, at the point of delivery, it has often failed to listen to its clients and that means communities, parents and pupils. The biggest problem in schools today is not that bright children are not stretched it is the fact that 20% of pupils leave school with no discernible qualification. Local authorities have closed village schools which they should have kept open. They have tolerated selection by gender and by an approximation of ability mostly related to social class. They have not been sufficiently principled or adequately visionary and their goals have been confused.

However, that is not a justification for free schools either. In fact, there is no reason to assume that free schools will address any of these issues and they may make many of them much worse. They will foster social selection and develop their own sources of bad advice. Just listen to Toby Young! There is no reason to assume even that they will reflect communities. Instead, they will serve the self interests of some people in those communities.

Following on from the structural argument, free schools make strategic planning impossible and they do so because as they attract pupils from other schools they impact on investment, teacher pupil ratios and, in the worst cases, sustainability. They make it impossible to close schools or amalgamate them whatever the evidence suggests. Surplus school places are one of the greatest causes of waste in the current educational system and they will become a structural feature in the system proposed by the coalition.

And that means that the schools will be expensive to establish and support. There is absolutely nothing in any of these proposals which will not involve significant extra costs and an increased waste of resources. Exploring the possibilities and setting out the business plan is just the start of an expensive road. There are not empty and accessible buildings kicking around waiting to be turned into schools and, if there were, the work involved would be considerable. Schools cannot operate in disused office blocks. The schools which local authorities want to close are often those which require the most investment to keep open. And, even if free schools were a good idea, to contemplate their introduction at a time when education is facing such savage cuts in investment simply doesn’t make sense.

There is a powerful social tendency today to support the emotional argument and to assume that if people want something badly enough they should be given it. It exists as a counter to what some people perceive as the soullessness of local government and its inability to listen. It links into arguments about decentralisation and the wisdom of the crowd. As such, a movement towards locally run schools unencumbered by the state is possibly understandable but a pile of wrongs do not make a right and there has to be a public process and public accountability when state funding is involved.

What Labour needs now is a new agenda on schools which takes account of the needs of society, employment prospects, new technology, parental interests and pupil needs. It has to recognise major changes like the transformation of knowledge and learning in society, and the increasingly early maturation of pupils and their political demands for more choice in education pathways and more independence. It needs to engage with social and religious division in education and, in passing, to decouple the church and the state. Schooling has to meet the needs of all learners in the twenty-first century but the free school movement will only meet the needs of a few parents and ideologues.


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