Free schools: for and against


Parents, teachers and charities are being asked to step forward if they want to run schools in England. Opinions are sharply divided.


Many of the hundreds of groups we work with have been campaigning for years for new excellent local schools - now their vision can become a reality.

And new groups - particularly of excellent teachers - are coming forward all the time. Teachers who want to make the greatest possible impact in deprived areas and cannot under the current system. We allow doctors and lawyers to set up GP surgeries and legal firms, but we don't allow teachers to set up schools. This is mad.

We also work with hundreds of parents who have suffered for too long from a two-tier education system - one in which the wealthy can get to an excellent local school by buying a house in the right catchment area or paying school fees, while less well off parents are stuck.

Image caption,
Ministers want the first free schools to open next year

They want to partner with teachers and education experts to create a good local school. Other parents have been unable to make sure they have a local school, because local authorities have closed down local schools or refused permission for a new one.

Those parents are forced to send their children miles away to extremely large schools which don't have the community involvement or the ethos they want.

Of course there should be proper accountability - we will be working with groups to make sure they submit a high quality application, and we would expect them to be held accountable for their performance. The question should be "are children, particularly those from deprived areas, getting a better education as a result of this school?"

The evidence from New York, from Boston, from Chicago, is that they can and will. There, new schools set up and run by teachers in the poorest areas have transformed education standards. Dedicated teachers are getting the poorest children - children who had been let down in other schools - into college.

Children here deserve the same opportunity.

Against: Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers

The government's commitment to "free schools" will create chaos at local level. Rather than providing opportunities to all parents, it will privilege the few at the expense of the many.

Michael Gove has said whilst that Sweden's free schools have broken "the bureaucratic stranglehold", and that, far from "driving segregation, these schools have driven up standards for all". Yet the National Agency for Education (NAE) in Sweden points to a system that shows, "fairly unambiguously, that segregation has increased".

The NAE has found that free schools have higher results on average than municipal (state) schools, but the agency says a significant factor for parents who opt for free schools is "choosing a particular desirable social context". In other words, free schools are a magnet for the middle class. Results reflect the differing social composition of both types of school.

Despite reassurances from Michael Gove that reforms based on the Swedish system of "free" schools would not be run for profit, there is the strong possibility under this system that governing bodies could increasingly contract out the running of schools to private companies in return for management fees.

Adopting such a business model to our schools will amount to the sweeping dismantling of our education system, turning it over to unaccountable, unelected companies. There should be no place within education for private companies to profit. These profits can only be made at the expense of funding and investment in children's education.

Not only that, the Conservatives' "free schools" project would be a fundamental waste of money at a time of proposed serious cuts when schools will need every penny they can get.

Waste will be created by the unnecessary and expensive addition of unwanted school places, just to suit the Conservative Party's ideological commitment to the introduction of a chaotic marketplace".

Dame Margaret Eaton, Chairman of the Local Government Association

Expanding school choice for parents and pupils is something councils support, but this does not mean that schools can just be left alone without someone keeping an eye on their performance.

Whatever the combination of free schools, academies and community schools, someone needs to make sure there is the right number of places available, that the admissions process operates fairly and that funding is distributed efficiently.

Image caption,
'Councils support choice but need to keep oversight of an area's education system'

In a system which makes it easier for new schools to open up and encourages a wider range of providers it is more, not less, important that there is a body involved that understands a local area and can have some oversight of that area's education system.

Councils don't run schools and haven't done for many years. What local government does is co-ordinate the provision of education, and it provides extra support for some of the children who need it most, because they have special educational needs or are in care.

Councils are perfectly placed to challenge schools to drive up standards, and are offering to do much more than the system currently allows, to work with schools and encourage improvement across the board. An issue which is of great personal concern to me is the number of perfectly adequate schools which are coasting rather than striving for excellence, and local government could help them do better.

Although much of the recent education debate has focused on "freeing schools from local authority control", the real story is that as council control has steadily diminished, interference from the centre has massively increased. Head teachers and governors of maintained schools face an overwhelming burden of central regulation, with new governors expected to digest thousands of pages of central guidance.

If free schools and academies are to have much of the burden of central bureaucracy lifted, it is important other schools can benefit in the same way. Cutting back on centralised direction will allow teachers and governors to focus on providing the best possible education for our children, without wasting resources on unnecessary bureaucracy.

Against: John Dunford, secretary general, Association of School and College Leaders

These schools will not be free to local taxpayers or to the education budget as a whole. At a time when education budgets are about to be seriously cut, the priority being given to establishing these schools must be questioned.

The government has said that it wants to establish these as "small schools with small classes". However, diseconomies of scale mean that smaller schools generally have larger classes. They could well end up more expensive to run than existing schools.

There is concern among school leaders that the proposed "free" schools will take funding away from other local schools.

The secretary of state has been quoted as saying that: "We have one of the most segregated, stratified school systems in the developed world". Regrettably, these "free" schools are likely to create another stratum.

The number of these new schools is likely to be small, so this policy will have a much less significant effect on the education system than the law now being passed to enable maintained schools to convert to academy status.

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