The cost of “free schools”

The government’s flagship education policy is the creation of so-called “free schools”, and the first steps to implementing this have been taken by the announcement that all schools are to be invited to become “academies”, removed from local education authority (LEA) control.

It’s claimed that “freeing” schools will raise standards and give parents more choice. My view is that anyone who thinks that has clearly not experienced the secondary school admissions process: a process which is not about parents choosing schools, but about schools choosing children, with some parents spending literally years in anxiety and fear about what might happen if their children end up on the losing side in our divisive and unequal educational system.

So that’s one reason why I’m sceptical about “free schools”. But another reason is that “freeing” schools from LEA control is really about centralising control in the hands of the Department for Education – as both Simon Jenkins and Matthew Taylor pointed out in two excellent articles yesterday.

Simon Jenkins points out that education secretaries and prime ministers have been singing this song for over two decades now, to little effect. The only way in which Gove’s scheme can succeed is for him to “push the nuclear button and give [schools] control over their admissions”. Jenkins continues:

[T]he one really creditable effort of British education since the war has been the battle for some equality of opportunity within the state education sector, even if in big cities it has not always worked. If Cameron and Gove really mean to reverse this, to revert to 11-plus selection and educational segregation, they had better say so, and face the political music.

In the absence of this (almost inevitably coalition-destroying) course of action, it is likely that few schools will be keen to “free” themselves from the “support in staffing and admissions” provided by LEAs. The undermining of LEAs is just another example of the “dreary abuse of local democracy” that has driven the centralisation of the British state since 1979.

Matthew Taylor, coming from a somewhat different political perspective from Simon Jenkins, describes his own (at times reluctant) involvement in the formation of Labour’s academy schools policy in the last decade. The original idea of the academies was to increase capital expenditure in deprived areas. By contrast:

The redistribution element has gone, indeed it must be most likely that it will be more privileged schools and sets of parents who take up the new freedoms and funding streams.

Second, rather than putting grit in the oyster of the local schools system the policy is now to smash the oyster entirely.

Schools already have more freedom than is often recognised, Taylor argues. Conversely, “local authorities can play a vital role in addressing problems in schools that are not succeeding or in danger of getting into trouble”, where volunteer governors may struggle (for example, in getting rid of an incompetent headteacher).

The question of failing schools is critical to this. As Taylor observes:

Michael Gove wants an open market in schooling, but markets only succeed if businesses are regularly allowed to fail. Children only have one education so we can’t be as relaxed about failure in schools as we might be about failure in the high street.

There is absolutely no question that the combination of encouraging all manner of new entrants into school governance along with residualising the local authority role will lead to many more school failures (this is not scaremongering, it is the logical consequence of the policy).

How will the coalition deal with this? In the absence of an LEA, who will step in where governors and headteachers are unable to address problems effectively? Taylor’s “hunch” is that:

any solution will see central government effectively taking over the oversight currently vested in councils.

So the likely result of these reforms will not be “freedom”, but a growing divide between “good” and “failing” schools, and an increase in central government control of education to fill the vacuum left by yet another erosion of local democracy.

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