Creaming off the top
We were perplexed and angry. Most state schools are not failing. On many measures they are performing better, and giving opportunities to many more young people, than ever before. Our own children have all had excellent educations and been happy in their local schools. Moreover, national polls consistently show that the vast majority of parents are happy with their existing local state schools.
Reading the national press, with its inevitable focus on high profile projects like the West London Free school, founded by the journalist Toby Young, it is easy to get lulled into the sense that these controversies are essentially metropolitan affairs.
But the contributions, comments and emails we receive suggest that free schools – independent state schools with freedoms that other schools don’t have – are dividing communities all over the country and for several reasons.
The decision to axe the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, and to cut schools’ annual devolved capital budgets, has left hundreds of schools – my own daughter’s included – without the new facilities they were expecting and without adequate funds for minor repairs and refurbishments. To see money already being diverted into free schools that may not be needed is galling.
Moreover, in areas where there are already enough school places and where a new school uses its freedoms on admissions to cream off the more able and motivated pupils, there are real fears that existing schools will lose pupils and revenue, have to manage increasingly skewed intakes and possibly face closure.
Examples of ‘covert’ selection are already seeping out. The Bolingbroke Academy in South London, dubbed the ‘bankers free school’ by the media, wants to admit pupils from four primary schools, which have markedly lower number of children on free school meals and from some minority ethnic backgrounds, than the local borough average.
Then there are the implications for community cohesion. Earlier this year, Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech in which he claimed he didn’t want “different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream”. Yet the free schools policy will almost certainly lead to an increase in the number of single faith schools, often promoted by parents from the sort of minority ethnic communities that Cameron wants to integrate into the British way of life.
Of the first eight free schools given the green light, one was a Jewish school, one a Hindu school and one a Church of England School. There are several more Jewish and Anglican projects in the pipeline, and Islamic and Sikh groups have also expressed an interest in free schools. Even an evangelical church in the East Midlands, which promotes Creationism, now wants a school.
Perversely the new national curriculum, through which the government wants to teach a sense of ‘national identity’, will not apply to free schools.
Even some supporters of the free schools policy seem to share our concerns about the pace and shape of change.
LKMco, a consultancy currently working with some free school providers, looked in depth at the experience of US Charter school providers (used as the model for the UK free schools policy) and produced an interesting pamphlet: ‘The Six Predictable Failures of Free Schools and how to avoid
Author Laura McInerney’s overall conclusion is that many free schools will fail if they don’t try to understand and work with existing local schools; if they don’t take time and care in their implementation phase; and if government doesn’t carefully manage the funding of existing schools at the same time.
At the Local Schools Network we would argue that such lessons learned from other countries (Sweden has also recently brought all its free schools into a national regulatory framework) point in favour of a clear role for local authorities. Not in running schools – which they haven’t done for years – but in holding the ring to ensure fairness for all children, not just extra advantages for a few.
New school places should be created where they are needed but they should be maintained, not free, and have the same rules on admissions, exclusions and the curriculum as all other schools. If they are not needed, then public money should go instead on supporting existing schools, investing in their fabric and their teachers and encouraging them to collaborate with others, not compete for either resources or pupils.
Schools can bring communities together, rather than divide them. There is nothing more powerful than the sight of children from all backgrounds, faiths and cultures walking through the same school gate every morning. We have been lucky enough to have that for our own children, in state schools that deliver an excellent standard of education. We believe it can be achieved in communities across the country if different policies are pursued.