Free schools: for and against

“Free schools” are privately run but charge no fees. The first opens this month: will they raise standards?
August 24, 2011
Education minister Michael Gove champions free schools

Melissa Benn: You and your colleagues promote free schools as a means to provide a rigorous education for poor children in a grossly unequal educational landscape. However, I fear that history will judge free schools as, at best, a damaging diversion from this noble aim, slowing the development of the high quality, genuinely comprehensive system that this country so urgently requires.

Before the election, Michael Gove and David Cameron trumpeted free schools as an opportunity primarily for working-class parents—and not the sharp-elbowed middle class. More than a year on, this is clearly not the case. In practice, the free school movement is developing into a strange, hybrid creature; spearheaded, predictably enough, by figures like the journalist Toby Young. It also appears to be the prime vehicle for faith groups, failing private schools and, most worrying of all, the burgeoning private sector, to seek the state’s protection and revenue.

I say “appears to be” because it is difficult to get any hard information on many individual free school groups, or the true national cost of the project. At a recent meeting of parents from around the country, there was frustration at the secrecy, divisiveness and damage that free school plans are causing in their areas.

Far from embodying the spontaneous eruption of democratic local will, I suspect we will increasingly see free schools imposed from above by a government desperate to ensure the success of its flagship project. We already know that many schools have been offered financial sweeteners in order to convert to academies. The expense of free schools is also bound to climb.

None of this will help to educate the majority of the poor and vulnerable, currently in schools now suffering major cuts.

Rachel Wolf: I agree that we have a “grossly unequal educational landscape.” Why? Because we deny many families the opportunities we take for granted. Those with money can pay school fees or move to the catchment area of a good school. But good schools raise house prices. So if you can’t afford the mortgage, you can’t move.

This choice-by-mortgage-payment leads to enormous inequality. Free schools provide a solution: they give all parents options, not just the wealthy. In doing so, they raise standards for pupils who are not getting the education they deserve or need.

That is precisely what has happened elsewhere. New York’s charter schools—the closest model for England’s free school programme—have closed the rich-poor gap by 86 per cent in maths and 66 per cent in English. This is a staggering achievement.

It’s also what is set to happen here. The majority of the first free schools will be in deprived areas. Of the remainder, most are in areas where there is no local school—because of a shortage of places or because the local school has been closed down.

Critics do not believe that free schools will be set up in poorer areas for two reasons. First, they conflate the beneficiaries of free schools (parents and pupils) with their founders (usually not parents). Free school founders are more likely to be teachers and headteachers than parents. True, teachers are middle class. But most of the pupils in their school will not be.

Second, they believe that only the wealthy are “sharp elbowed”—by which they mean “intelligent and want the best for their kids.” This is both patronising and wrong. Parents from the most deprived areas are signing petitions in their thousands for free schools. They want a good school for their children—it’s just that until now they have been denied access to one.

Melissa Benn: Of course, all parents care about their children’s education. But many want improvement and reform within a clear and fair framework, not market principles imposed on a public service. The problem with our system lies less with

“selection by mortgage”—the standard charge made by defenders of the 11 plus—than with the myriad forms of selection that create an unfair pyramid of provision.

In the name of parental choice, and now autonomy, successive governments have granted their favoured schools greater control over their own admissions. According to Barnardo’s, the children’s charity, this has led to poorer children being locked out of the country’s highest performing schools. That’s what I call sharp-elbowed practice! Free school plans will simply add yet another opaque layer to this already over-complex, unfair hierarchy.

You cite US charter schools as an attractive model. A dangerous example, given the undue power that charter schools hand to billionaire philanthropists and corporate figures—such as Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City schools, now firefighting for Rupert Murdoch at News Corp. Charter schools inflict huge damage on existing schools: they have high rates of attrition, a rigid, unimaginative and often punishing pedagogic culture and are unaccountable to their communities.

Do they even work? According to the largest study yet undertaken, by Stanford University in 2009, 17 per cent improved on public (state) school performance in maths, 46 per cent showed no difference and 37 per cent were significantly worse. The highest achieving charter schools often benefit from massive top-up funding from private sources, not replicable on a national scale.

Is this really a step forward? A parallel system, powered by a top-down alliance of central government and private enterprise, that promotes the segregation of children by class, religion or ethnic background and, in the end, doesn’t even deliver?

Rachel Wolf: Melissa, you believe that parents want “improvement and reform within a clear and fair framework.” I have no idea what that means, and have never heard a parent outside the Westminster intelligentsia talk in those terms. They just want a great school for their kids.

Take the thousands of parents who signed a petition in Hackney, asking a superb school in a disadvantaged area— Mossbourne—to set up a new free school. It should open next year. Or the Free School Norwich, which is already oversubscribed. The teacher-founder knew that many parents—particularly single mothers—wanted an alternative. Or the group of teachers led by Peter Hyman. In just a couple of months he has had an overwhelming response for the free school he plans in Newham. Far from excluding poorer children, these schools—like the school being set up by Brighton College for pupils on low incomes—are targeting them.

I fundamentally disagree that high performing schools succeed not because they are good, but because poorer children are “locked out.” Many schools achieve fantastic results through leadership and hard work—not by excluding children. Free schools will do the same.

Obviously there must be checks: on admissions, on curriculum and on results.

Free schools must go through a rigorous approval process—that is a lesson from the US. The Stanford study showed that some states had fantastic charter schools and some did not. It found that a good system combined freedom with accountability. Boston, Chicago and New York are examples of these systems, and we are learning from the successes and failures to ensure that free schools in Britain work.

This year thousands of African-American parents picketed a union in Harlem for trying to stop charter schools. For the first time, their children had been offered a chance. Parents here deserve the same.

Melissa Benn: OK. Let me spell out what is meant by “improvement and reform within a clear and fair framework.” It means giving all pupils, parents and schools the same rights, and protection, in terms of admissions, exclusions and funding. “Independent state schools” by definition have freedoms that other schools don’t have—and that is not fair. It means radical, long overdue changes to existing schools, such as: ensuring fair and balanced intakes; more resources and the best teachers for the most challenging schools; smaller classes; a rich and challenging curriculum. In short, it means a great school in every neighbourhood, serving all families, whatever their background.

You would never know it from the free school movement—or the government—but there are already thousands of popular, oversubscribed schools providing the high standards of education that free schools have failed to guarantee in other countries.

Let’s make our existing schools even better, and help others to improve, rather than forcing them to close. If new schools are needed, let’s ensure they are created on a level playing field with their neighbours.

Finally, you vastly overstate parental enthusiasm for free schools. You mention Hackney, where the borough’s Learning Trust recently consulted with local parents on whether a new secondary school should be an academy or a free school. Even when they were told that any future school would work in partnership with Mossbourne, the borough’s most successful academy, only a tiny minority of parents voted for the free school option. In truth, it is free schools that are the brainchild of the “Westminster intelligentsia.”

The chief effect of the free school movement has been to undermine existing state education, and lay the groundwork for the dramatic expansion of the private sector. I don’t believe that is what most parents want.

Rachel Wolf: We completely agree on outcomes. Who wouldn’t want a great school in every neighbourhood, a rich curriculum, the best teachers in the most deprived schools? The question is how you get there. You believe spending more money and regulation are the answers. But that approach has failed. After over a decade of unprecedented spending and regulation, we have become less successful compared to other countries.

Why? Because in a centrally-run world, there is no incentive for a school to improve, and central government acts as the sole dictator of what a good school looks like. In that world, the wealthy always win—if they happen to live next to a good school, great. If not, they can afford to move.

Free schools help level the playing field, and provide an incentive for all schools to improve. In Sweden parents are able to go to their existing local school and say “if you don’t improve, we will set up a free school.” Nine times out of ten, the school improves. Five separate studies in Sweden have shown that the creation of free schools improves all schools in the area.

This has already started to happen here—before the first free schools opened. One teacher is opening up a free school next year and, as a result, the local authority is finally taking action on its failing schools. Why? Because it is worried parents will sign up to the free school now they have another option. This is system improvement in action—and everyone will benefit.

You believe parents won’t want this; time will tell. If free schools don’t attract parents, they won’t stay open. That is a greater test than any current schools face. But at least we will, finally, be giving parents, not politicians, their say.