Opinion: Keep Free Schools, but make them better

Mark Pack’s question on the future of Lib Dem education policy in light of Free Schools is very timely.

We should rightly be proud of the implementation of the pupil premium; a distinctively liberal policy that will go some way to correcting the inequities of the education system. Our education manifesto for 2015 can’t rely just on advocating a bigger and better pupil premium.

In the medium term it seems likely that free schools and academies will be here to stay; abolishing them in 2015 would entail unnecessary and counterproductive upheaval.

Plenty of the criticisms directed at free schools; lack of accountability, poor outcomes and social segregation already apply to too many British schools. For every council that works tirelessly to boost educational standards, there is one that could do far better. You only need to look at Bradford’s school system to see segregation in action.

Academies and free schools present opportunities for improving accountability to parents, for introducing innovation in teaching methods and tackling some of the inequities of the current system. Local communities need to work hard to make these opportunities a reality.

There are also clear risks, which we can explicitly prevent while in Government and campaign against in 2015. One is the introduction of profit making schools; advocated by several right-wing think tanks but ruled out by Nick Clegg. Another is the scope in the future for reducing education spending overall without public scrutiny.

The biggest problem, and one our 2015 manifesto can tackle if Lib Dems in Government have not provided a solution by then, is the centralisation the free school/academy regime entails. This has consequences for localism, for the accountability of schools and causes a practical administrative problem of under-capacity at the Department of Education.

With headteachers having far more autonomy over just about every aspect of school activity, making sure they are properly accountable should be our priority. It does not seem feasible that every complaint that can’t be resolved locally could be mediated through Whitehall. What recourse should be available to local people when a school starts teaching creationism as scientific fact, or sacks the special needs teaching assistants to pay for iPads for teachers?

Firstly, we need to make governing boards more robust, pro-active and willing to cast a constructively critical eye over everything schools do. Complementing this would be an ombudsman incorporating scrutiny that was formerly invested in local authorities but combined with elements of Ofsted and the local government ombudsman so that issues can be tackled in the round. There needs to be a realisation that performance league tables obscure more than they reveal and that letting universities and businesses have more of a role in critiquing performance is no bad thing. A distinctly liberal policy towards devolution of power to schools and parents should go hand-in-hand with a wholesale revolution of the way we judge the process and outcomes of schooling.

We must also be mindful that school choice not only relies on a high level of parent knowledge but is a very urbancentric policy. Even if the introduction of Free Schools eventually improves parent engagement, we will need to find a way of extending the potential benefits to rural areas where geography and demography preclude a ‘market’ of schools emerging.

As it stands, free schools still have the potential to benefit some children at the expense of others. This has been the danger and reality of lots of past incarnations of the system though. The important thing is to focus not on structure, but on culture and technique, recognising that educational success relies on good parenting as well as good schooling.

* Tom Smith is Director of Liberal Insight, the new liberal think tank.

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  • patricia roche 17th Apr '12 - 10:42am

    the problem is that once these children have been enhanced via learning, they will still be poor and will be faced with student loans in further education and the university. FE traditionally takes on learners who are from non middle class backgrounds, so what about this aspect?

  • Peter Watson 17th Apr '12 - 12:05pm

    I believe that bringing competition and market forces into the provision of local schools is fundamentally wrong.
    If I choose to buy my groceries from a nearby mini-supermarket, then over time the local grocer will become increasingly less profitable until eventually, unable to compete, it closes down. Customers who stuck with it, perhaps through loyalty or habit, a desire to support local business, or because they cannot afford to travel to the mini-supermarket, will be inconvenienced and have to change to a new shop.
    A failing school, losing business to an upstart neighbour creaming off the local talent, does far more damage to its “customers” as it declines or when it goes bust. Which “customers” would benefit from swapping to a new school halfway through their GCSE studies? By the time that falling school rolls or league table performance are seen, the damage has been done and is still being done to its remaining pupils (who are children, not customers). And if every school is a free school, who will be looking after the local community’s needs? Who will minimise the damage arising from a new school popping up to cherry-pick pupils in a rural area that can barely justify one school? In theory, LEAs can plan the provision of school places in an area and close schools in an orderly way if there is over-provision. What is to stop a free school from disappearing overnight?
    We need a system that encourages (or forces) schools to cooperate not compete, one that integrates not segregates children. This requires coordination by some form of LEA, not a competitive free-for-all that creates winners and losers. The current system needs to be reformed, but I think that free schools are an unnecessary and undesirable diversion from creating the sort of education system that this country needs. I am happy for the threat of closing or reintegrating free schools to hang in the air while people are contemplating whether to form or send their children to one.

  • Geoffrey Payne 17th Apr '12 - 12:43pm

    I am appalled at the way local democracy is dismissed in this article. In a democracy it is up to voters to decide whether their local authority is doing a good job running their schools, not politicians in Whitehall with a “we know best” attitude.
    The Liberal Democrats should support a policy of local authorities being in charge of education and if Tory run councils want Free Schools it should be up to them to implement that policy.

  • Our embrace of free schools and academies is nauseating.

    As a councillor in the 80s, I and my colleagues asset stripped all sorts of other services to protect school funding which we recognised as crucial. To now find that free schools and academies can jeopardise and undermine LEAs merely panders to the Tory right which sees LEA and immediately think ILEA

  • Georffrey Payne

    I am appalled at the way direct democracy is dismissed in your comment. In a free school it is up to parents to decide whether their school is doing a good job, not politicians in the town hall with a “we know best” attitude.

  • Alex Sabine 17th Apr '12 - 1:52pm

    Geoffrey: Surely liberalism is about power being vested in the people, not simply shifting power between different tiers of government?

    I agree that the perpetual centralisation and micromanagement of education – which reached its absurd apogee under the last government, with more than one new education bill per year, 16,000 new parliamentary regulations, a 10-year plan, a talent taskforce, compulsory cooking, mandatory culture and even a national play strategy – has a debilitating effect on morale and (because it artificially distorts the use of time and resources, even when the targets might appear commonsensical) often school performance too.

    However, it is equally unattractive and unrealistic to imagine we can return to the ‘secret garden’ world of education that Jim Callaghan identified as a problem in his 1976 Ruskin speech, in which the subject of education wasn’t deemed important enough for Prime Ministers to pronounce upon and it was assumed that it was best left to the unholy alliance of LEAs and the teaching unions (with parents a long way behind).

    As Andrew Adonis has written: “The Ruskin speech broke that tradition and alarmed the education establishment. In his memoirs, Bernard Donoghue, Callaghan’s policy director at No 10, recalls the Department of Education as being ‘deeply shocked that a prime minister should have the impertinence to trespass into its own secret garden’.”

    Moreover, if education is, as the unions always claim, a ‘service’, then it seems to me not improper – and indeed rather important – that mechanisms which ensure direct choice for, and accountability to, the consumers of that service are put in place. They need to have a meaningful role in influencing the shape of the service on an ongoing basis, and the ability to discipline poor-performing providers including in the last resort by going elsewhere.

    Given our starting point in the UK, the means of achieving that might involve the exercise of certain powers by the Secretary of State, but the goal must ultimately be to devolve power *further down* than the LEA by placing real autonomy at the school level (for example the powers to set pay levels and vary the curriculum, as academies and free schools have) and real power in the hands of teachers, parents and pupils.

    As the Lib Dems’ then education spokesman David Laws told the 2007 party conference: “…So let us be imaginative and liberal in the way we address educational failure. This party has never believed that the state has a monopoly of wisdom.

    “Last year we voted the brilliant John Stuart Mill as our best ever liberal. Mill was a passionate advocate of free education, but he was also a passionate opponent of all monopolies, and in that great classic work ‘On Liberty’, he argued that improvement and progress in a free society could only be guaranteed by experimentation and diversity, not by central diktat.

    “And I agree with Mill. If federations twinning with successful schools and other interventions can work – great. If universities, cooperatives, parents, independent schools, educational charities can help to turn around failing schools or establish better alternatives, they too deserve our support and encouragement.

    “It is no longer good enough for schools with the best results to serve only the most affluent, and we must send out the message to the majority of our citizens, who do rely on public services, that the era of big government, top down, take-it-or-leave-it, monopoly supply is over.”

    I agree that issues of capacity and the practicability of choice in rural contexts, as raised by Tom in his article, require different and supplementary solutions to ensure high standards. But this does not mean starting from Geoffrey’s apparent premise that local authorities should be monopoly providers, or that – in a scenario where local authorities had sole discretion over such matters – Lib Dems should oppose any departure from uniform municipal provision and leave it to Tory councils to champion a more plural, diverse system.

  • Peter Watson 17th Apr '12 - 2:44pm

    @Alex Agius
    Direct democracy extends further than just the parents of the children in a particular school.
    At the very least it includes parents in neighbouring schools, parents whose children are not yet at school, those who are not yet parents, everyone who pays taxes to fund the education system. They are all affected by free schools but have no influence.
    Democracy, such as it applies to free schools, seems to exclude more of the population than it includes.

  • Peter Watson 17th Apr '12 - 2:56pm

    @Alex Sabine
    I agree that our education system needs improving – my vision of coordination and collaboration is far from the current situation – but I believe the way that free schools have been implemented is a step in the wrong direction.
    Other groups may well be able to run schools better than current administrations, but they should do so within a framework managed by democratically accountable bodies which are responsible for all state-funded school provision within a local area.
    Society suffers if one school thrives at the expense of another, but that is surely what a competitive, market-driven system is intended to do.

  • Peter Watson 17th Apr '12 - 3:00pm

    In the discussion above, both supporters and opponents of free schools acknowledge that they are unsuited to rural areas with low population densities.
    It strikes me as odd that the tory and LD coalition seems to be implementing something that does not benefit their core constituencies, and instead seems to be ideal for middle-class enclaves in safer urban labour seats.

  • Peter Watson – Direct democracy extends further than just the parents of the children in a particular school.

    Sorry this is just incorrect.

    As an Englishman living in England I did not get to vote in the recent Welsh referendum just because I am nearby or because it might affect me or because i may one day go and live in Wales.

  • I’m not sure whether the irony unconscious or not, but a “failing” school (as defined by narrow criteria set by Ofsted generally in relation to achievement against the National Curriculum) can be “turned around ” by a free school able to set its own curriculum or none

  • jenny barnes 17th Apr '12 - 3:47pm

    ” What recourse should be available to local people when a school starts teaching creationism as scientific fact, or sacks the special needs teaching assistants to pay for iPads for teachers?”
    Presumably the parents get to choose to move their children to another school. That’s it, really. Governing bodies will probably vanish in any meaningful sense, and become PTAs by another name.

  • Peter Watson 17th Apr '12 - 4:52pm

    @Alex Agius
    If you are paying for it, then you should have been entitled to vote.
    I think the idea of only considering the views of some parents and ignoring the larger community is fundamentally wrong.
    If somebody wishes to build a waste incinerator next to your house, it is right that you can ask your elected councillors to refuse permission because you live there and will be adversely affected. Or do you believe that as long as someone wants to build an incinerator and work there, then you should have no say?

  • Peter Watson 17th Apr '12 - 5:03pm

    ” What recourse should be available to local people when a school starts teaching creationism as scientific fact …
    Presumably the parents get to choose to move their children to another school.”
    My concern is that free schools could become state-funded ghettos for people who actually want their kids to be taught such nonsense.

  • I wonder if Tom Smith could tell us why innovative teaching can’t be practised in all schools and what are the inequities in the present system? Does Tom think that we don’t already try to appoint able ‘robust’ governors and offer them training to enable them to challenge and support? So what is the great change that these Free Schhols offer? I really hope it isn’t a proliferation of Toby Young clones!
    When will people stop agonising about what is liberal purity and understand how education works? It is successful when a good teacher is in front of a class, supported by a good headteacher who fulfils the role of in-house inspector monitored by a supportive LA which enables the Head to concentrate on teachnig and ethos in the school rather than marketing, pensions etc. It succeeds when, as Dylan William promotes, every teacher recognises that it takes more than a lifetime to be really good and thus continues to improve practice. The school structure is irrelevant but it enable people like Gove and some in. our party think that they are doing something relevant. The role of parents and home life is critical of course and as immportant as what goes on in school but the league tables promote marketisation as though this drives up standards. The best heads can & do engage parents but it isn’t always easy. Finally can I suggest that anyone using the term ”bog standard comprehensive’ is revealing his/her ignorance and should be ignored thereafter?

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Apr '12 - 10:39am

    “Free” schools seem to be set up to solve a problem that does not exist. The argument for them is that they are to challenge the uniformity of schools provided by the Local Education Authority, but the reality is that the LEA has almost no say on what goes on in schools. I was a councillor for twelve years, I sat on the Education Committee when we had one (that is when we had the decent governance of the committee system), and during that time I found there was nothing I could do or say to influence what went on inside the borough’s schools – that was a matter for their heads, their governing bodies and the national curriculum.

    Everything I have ever seen that has been put forward as a supposed advantage of any “free” school could just as well have been done by a LEA school if its head and governing body wished. So why can’t those people who want to set up “free” schools just volunteer to become governors of LEA schools? There are plenty of vacancies, it’s hard to get people to take up the position which can be fairly onerous, and is unpaid.

  • jenny barnes 18th Apr '12 - 1:37pm

    peter watson “My concern is that free schools could become state-funded ghettos for people who actually want their kids to be taught such nonsense.”

    Well, yes. Was it only yesterday Michael Gove was encouraging the church to take a more active role in free schools? I think faith schools are effectively such ghettoes – but we don’t seem tohave a government that cares about the divisiveness of faith based education, or indeed the rationality of it. I feel sorry particularly for younger primary school children in such schools who at that age just go along with what their trusted guides tell them.

  • Richard Swales 18th Apr '12 - 2:34pm

    If you and a group of your like-minded neighbours were armed, and the rest of your neighbours were not, would you be morally entitled, in the public interest, to stop them from educating their kids according to the educational and other principles they believe in? If not, then why is it legitimate to use the state to do that? The government is just a different type of weapon; similarly to a tank it takes more than one person to operate, but it is still a weapon. Like other types of weapon its legitimate use is to protect, not to compel.

    Does you think my view disqualifies me from membership in this party?

  • @Tom Smith Inequalities are mostly funding… Yes Tom but how do Free schools make a bit of differenceto this. The pupil premium is applicable to all schools! The inequalities are perpetuated by Free schools when, as is the case in some communities children move out of local schools and thereby reduce the funding and viability of those schools and the children in them. The ‘accountability to parents’ is a very dubious claim when applied to the disadvantaged families. My experience over 23 years in LA Education is that accountability is for the articulate parents.
    To claim that we are stuck with Free schools an odd position to take. Yes we are stuck for this parliament just as we were with Grant maintained schools under the Tories but that was changed with the Government. But I presume the argument is based on the assertion (evidence Tom?) that 50% of LAs fail their schools.

  • Rebecca Hanson 20th Apr '12 - 7:37am

    But Tom – the key issue within LAs the key issue is that money has to be moved from large full schools to small schools and schools with rapidly falling numbers. How is that being managed?

  • Peter Watson 20th Apr '12 - 8:17am

    And today in The Guardian we see reports of an academy primary school paying a political lobbying firm £150000 to get national publicity and government support, Gove having visited this school twice.
    Is this really the sort of education system Lib Dems want to support?
    I despair.

  • Peter Watson 27th Apr '12 - 11:31pm

    And today’s Daily Mail reports on the police investigation into the head of a chain of academy schools who had an interesting approach to purchasing things with school funds and employing family members (including a convicted flasher). A local tory county councillor is quoted as saying, “The governance arrangements for all academies need tightening up and this highlights the need for local accountability”. This is the system you want to keep?

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