Michael Foley, headteacher of Great Cornard Upper School & Technology College
in Suffolk, spoke out today at the BETT conference about the unfairness of the free schools programme. His school, which is judged to be a good school with outstanding features by Ofsted
, has building budget of just £20,000 for next year despite the fact that its building is crumbling and is struggling to keep out the rain during this winter. Meanwhile, a new free school is to be opened in Stoke-by-Nayland, a neighbouring village, for 11 to 16-year-olds; this school will largely have an intake of pupils from more advantaged backgrounds. This school will receive £4.5 for its building programme. Great Cornard admits pupils from a wide range of backgrounds but will definitely lose students from more prosperous homes with the opening of the free school. It's yet another example of communities being fractured by this policy.
Foley was sharing a platform with Cllr. Robert Light, Founder, BBG Parents’ Alliance
, Kirklees, West Yorkshire, who is setting up a free school in the area. Jon de Maria, a parent involved with the setting up of the Bolingbroke Academy in "nappy" valley, also spoke in defence of the school, which today was lambasted in the Daily Mirror
for seeking to create a school for rich children. This issue has been already very discussed on the site. Jon de Maria came across as much more interested in social justice and "doing the right thing" for the local community than the Kirklees parents who seemed very unappealing to me. Their tone was triumphalist: the PowerPoint was full of pictures of supporters where BBG T-shirts and pictures of lots of very white faces parading the streets in support what looks like is going to be a very "white" school in an area which is pretty ethnically diverse. Phrases like "social justice", "appreciating diversity", "equal opportunities" didn't come up. Their agenda seemed solely focused upon "doing the best" for their children rather than looking at the needs of the community as a whole.
I spoke on the panel and raised a few points about why the free schools policy is so disastrous.
1. It's very unfair. Resources are sucked away from local schools and put into the hands of pushy, socially advantaged parents who only have their own selfish agendas at heart.
2. It's divisive. Wealthy children are separated from poorer ones, children from different ethnic backgrounds are separated.
3. It's ineffective. Research from Sweden and the US shows it doesn't raise standards overall. The fact that untrained teachers are allowed to teach in these schools speaks volumes.
4. It causes administrative chaos. Proper strategic planning for new school places is thrown out of the window and a "free-for-all" ensues. The parents on the podium all more or less admitted to being "out of their depth" with all the paperwork involved. The Bedford free school isn't going to open on time, many schools don't have sites, pupil rolls are unknowns, teachers are not appointed.
5. Competition between schools kills off collaboration, the very thing that raises standards. The success of strategies like the London Challenge show that it's when schools collaborate that standards go up. Competition means that everyone remains isolated, defending their own corner.