A shorter version of this article appears in this week's New Statesman
From the outset, the Coalition’s Free School policy was heralded as its defining education policy, the one which made it different from Labour. The idea was that groups of parents, teachers or community members would be given the power and resources to set up their own schools, particularly in areas of high social deprivation.
In June last year, Gove said that the main principle behind free schools was “closing the attainment gap” between the poorest and wealthiest students, commenting: “The situation we have in this country at the moment is that we have one of the most stratified, segregated school systems in the developed world. In order to tackle the attainment gap, we want to learn from what's happened in America, Sweden, Canada, other countries that have given schools a greater degree of autonomy."
A year later, we now learn that there have been 323 free school proposals but that only 40 groups have got the go-ahead, with nine out of ten proposals being rejected. Of those accepted, less than half, 17, are at pre-opening stage with the Department for Education anticipating that between 10 and 20 Free Schools will open in September.
Considering there are 20,000 state schools in the England and this is 0.2% of schools, it’s a tiny droplet in the state school ocean. This statistic alone indicates the policy has failed; even if every free school were stuffed to the brim with poor children, the total number would only amount to a tiny fraction of the 4 million children living in poverty at the moment. It also indicates a huge lack of enthusiasm for the project amongst the nation’s parents and teachers, who contrary to the incessant propaganda peddled by the government, do not believe our school system is broken: the schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted reports that nearly 8 of 10 parents are happy with their children’s school.
However, despite the fact that the free school movement is woefully small, it’s worth looking at in depth because it shines a light on this government’s intentions and the possible repercussions if the policy did catch the public’s imagination.
Given Gove’s stated intention to close the attainment gap, it’s worth asking the question how many free schools will actually serve our poorest children?
My analysis indicates very few schools actually will serve poor children. Firstly, 13% of the 40 approved schools are currently private, serving our richest pupils. Although they will adopt the state school’s admissions code, the “siblings” policy, their catchment areas, and the general ethos of the schools will mean they will continue to serve well-off children. Added these schools, there are what I term the “public school wannabes”; free schools which very consciously adopt a “public school” persona: schools like Toby Young’s West London Free School – probably the most publicised school on the planet at the moment – have consciously aped the public school persona. This together with the “musical aptitude test” will no doubt attract middle-class parents. We’ll have to see how high the proportion of children from poorer backgrounds is in these schools but I suspect it will be comparatively low, even with the pupil premium, which is extra cash given to schools for admitting poor children.
Furthermore, twenty eight percent of the approved free schools are religious, catering for the Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Christian faiths. Research carried out by Campaign for State Education indicates that faith schools tend to attract children from prosperous backgrounds.
This indicates that the free schools system will increase social and religious segregation; far from bringing communities together, it’s certainly going to fracture them.
Nearly a third of free schools will be run by private companies. Educational chains such as ARK, Harris and E-Act have already been running the inner-city academies set up by Labour, but are now in on the free school programme in a big way. Indeed, one parent behind an unsuccessful bid to become a free school told me that going with a private provider was the “only game in town” at the moment. These private companies are used to working with poorer pupils, but a close analysis of their methods indicates that their achievements are patchy, relying on vocational qualifications, excluding undesirable students, and covertly cherry picking the brightest pupils to boost their results. Local authority schools with similar intakes have consistently out-performed them.
Sadly, only 10% of the approved free schools, a paltry four schools, meet Gove’s initial criteria for free schools: local parents setting up schools to help poor children. But even these are open to question. A school like BBG Parents Alliance in Kirklees is certainly a genuine effort by local parents to establish a school in their socially deprived community. However, dig deeper and you find that a DfE report, published last year, said the school shouldn’t be set up as it would great a huge surplus of school places in the area. The BBG Parents have faced accusations that they want a “white school” in an area which has a high Asian population. Furthermore, the millions spent on the BBG free school could be more fairly distributed amongst existing local schools.
These are the great worries about the free school programme; that they will increase social segregation and will suck scant resources out of existing state schools. It’s a concern expressed by Jim Fitzpatrick, the MP for Poplar and Limehouse, about a free school near me in Tower Hamlets, Canary Wharf college. Fitzpatrick told me: “I won’t fight them that would be pointless. I’m just worried about resources being siphoned off.”
For such a tiny programme, despite the best efforts of the government to hide the figures, we already the free schools project is proving extremely expensive: 97 top civil servants are working on the programme, the New Schools Network (NSN) has been given half a million to promote its cause, and its got the full attention of one of the best paid advisors in government, the Schools Commissioner, Liz Sidwell. Moreover, because nearly every free school will be a small operation which is promising small class sizes – Canary Wharf College is typical in promising average class sizes of 20 pupils – we know that they are not going to be cost-effective. My own calculations, using the DfE’s spending data, indicate that it will cost at least £2K more – and this is a very conservative effort – to educate a child at a free school compared with the state average. Next year, it will cost the taxpayer £7000 more to educate a child at Toby Young’s school than your average state school.
This isn’t even counting the capital costs of paying for the buildings to house these schools. The DfE has refused all Freedom of Information requests for us to know these – even when asked in the form of Parliamentary Questions – but we do know that they are going to be high. The Today Programme revealed this February that the costs of one school alone is going to be £28m and that a number of schools are being housed in listed buildings – notoriously expensive to buy and maintain.
The DfE’s reluctance to reveal the costs indicates another problem: the cloak-and-dagger secrecy surrounding the project. All the major decisions about free schools are carried out behind closed doors: no one knows the costs of the schools, why certain schools are preferred over others, why how free school staff are appointed, the numbers of pupils, even, in some cases, where the schools are situated. Andrew Nadin, a local resident in Bedford and Kempston, where Bedford and Kempston Free School (BKFS) is being set up told me: “The BKFS policy of withholding other than the most basic information – including the names of the people involved in the steering committee – has been very frustrating. From an observer’s point of view, it’s as if there’s a pact of silence between the DfE, NSN & the BKFS proposers. Even FoI’s are met with a stonewall, usually on the basis that releasing the information is not in the ‘commercial interests’ of the school.”
Tracy Hannigan who is a parent in West London and very concerned about the impact of several free school projects in her area, told me: “My feeling is that there are a lot of people worried about the lack of specific information available about free schools funding and approvals. The Department for Education isn't releasing information under the FoIA and more than one group concerned about free schools has found their local government reluctant to disclose relevant information. Between this and the weak consultation requirements, the process has generated a lot of distrust. If this is as great an idea as some claim it is, there should be nothing to worry about in openly presenting all of the information required for people to make an informed decision about these schools. That just doesn't seem to be happening.”
Tracy’s worries have motivated her and some other parents to set up the Parents Alliance for Community Schools
which celebrates, and works to protect local community schools.
Ros Coffey, Chair of Governors, Smithy Street Primary School in Tower Hamlets, is similarly suspicious of the free schools project: "Where I live there is a move to set up a free school and articles have appeared in the local paper, so I checked out the website but could find no tangible facts about what the school might provide and who would do the day-to-day running of the school. They want smaller classes, enhanced opportunities for their pupils and a great learning experience BUT I think that is what every child deserves not just those who go to a free school. I can see monies being diverted to these schools to the detriment of other State Schools, so that in a very short space of time we end up with a two tier education system. The pupils in my borough come from some of the poorest homes in the country and I will not stand by to see them deprived of the first class education that they deserve just to give a minority a chance to play at school and make potentially money from it."
Even the parents wanting to set up free schools are frustrated. One free school campaigner told me: “Our biggest concern is the lack of transparency in decision making at the DfE. Policy is being made up on the hoof. There appears to be no strategic consideration of where new schools are actually needed.”
But this is just to scratch the surface of the discontent that the programme has stirred up throughout the country. At the Local Schools Network, you’ll see numerous complaints from parents, teachers, and community members about the free school programme, worrying that it will increase social segregation, siphon off resources from state schools, that no one knows what’s going on, and that standards of education in them will be poor because unqualified teachers are allowed to teach in them. It all amounts a public relations disaster for the government.