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Are free schools really the answer?

Hannah Hunter Hannah Hunter | 13:04 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010

In Acton, the west London home of journalist and author Toby Young, the choice of secondary school is very limited.  With the eldest of his four children nearing the end of primary school, his solution to this problem has been to gather a group of concerned local parents to set up their own free school. Their progress is tracked in the BBC Two programme Start your own School.

If I was at the point of sending my child to secondary school and could choose between a failing comprehensive and a free school along the proposed lines of the West London Free School, then I would, almost certainly go with the free school.  If it were your child’s education at stake, wouldn’t you?

In principle, however, I am very unsure about the academies and free schools being set up to ‘solve’ an education system in crisis.  I believe that every child, regardless of background, deserves an excellent education. Surely the local authorities rather than private enterprise should deal with lack of provision and failing schools? Couldn’t the academies and free schools budget, be better used to invest in state-funded building programmes and bringing in crisis management, in order to turn around existing schools in trouble?

Toby Young with his family, credit BBC/Renegade Pictures

Toby Young with his family

Free schools are essentially independent schools with state funding, and won’t be accountable in the same way as local authority schools.  When problems occur, it won’t be democratically elected politicians who will be under scrutiny, so how will complaints against these schools be registered and dealt with?  And if the existing free schools are anything to go by, it’s not going to be plain sailing.

The American model for free schools, the charter system, has ostensibly led to more division in local communities rather than providing equal opportunities.  The Swedish system is constantly cited as being exemplary, but there is data to suggest that attainment has dropped year on year since the free school scheme was widely adopted.  This could be, amongst other reasons, due to employing unqualified, or under-qualified staff

Michael Gove wants poorer students to get a better education, and be first in line for the new schools. However it’s in no doubt those who David Cameron has dubbed the ‘sharp-elbowed’ middle classes, will find a way to work the new system to their advantage, as they seem to have done with the more successful academies, leaving less resourceful families worse off.   

As John Humphrys beautifully illustrated in Unequal Opportunities, there are state schools out there that are working for local communities;  schools that were failing and have been turned around by inspirational heads and teaching staff.  If we want all children, not just our own, to have equal educational opportunities, there must be a better way to do this than half-hearted free school and academy schemes.  It will cost money, and involve real commitment on the part of the government – but are they willing to do it?

Hannah Hunter is a member of the BBC parent panel.

Find out more about the programme the Start your own School  part of BBC Two School Season.




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