Rushing to introduce yet another type of school will not improve educational standardsby Judith Judd / August 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Schools are fertile territory for reforming governments. Labour’s first legislation in 1997 abolished the assisted places scheme; now the Conservatives have rushed through their academies bill. This will turn more schools into academies more quickly, and pave the way for privately run, state-funded “free schools” set up by parents, teachers and charities. David Cameron needs a quick win in public service reform to show that his government is about more than slashing spending. “We need to change the way we do education,” he said.
Will he succeed? Ministers have received just 62 applications for free school status. But new schemes often start slowly. The charity charged with promoting them is talking to 700 interested groups. Governments can cajole and bribe to advance change—as they did with grant-maintained schools (Conservatives), specialist schools (Conservative and Labour) and academies (Labour). The real question, though, is not how many free schools there will be, but whether they will improve standards. Michael Gove, secretary of state for education, said that in Sweden they have not only raised standards but have led to a “virtuous dynamic,” spurring other schools to “raise their game,” and that “they help close the gap between the poorest and wealthiest.”
The evidence for his optimism is thin. In Sweden, free schools launched in the mid-1990s now educate 10 per cent of 11 to 16 year olds. Research by Susanne Wiborg at London University’s Institute of Education shows that while their pupils get better results at 16, the advantage disappears when they reach 18. Sweden has slipped down education league tables since the schools were introduced. As for “closing the gap” in one of the most socially equal countries in the world, Wiborg found that such schools increased the divide between rich and poor. Do we need research to tell us that the people most likely to battle with bureaucrats and spend hours filling in forms are likely to be affluent and articulate? Any British local authority will tell you that many parents of children at the bottom of the pile don’t even fill in preference forms for existing schools.
Research on the US equivalent of the Swedish institutions—charter schools—is more extensive and harder to interpret. A 1991 law allowed any group to apply for a charter to run a free, state-funded school if it could demonstrate the need for one. A US study published in January showed that pupils in New…