Opinion: Why Lib Dems should support free schools

The news that a motion criticising free schools was to be debated at the Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference caused a rush of excitement among journalists looking for their next “coalition splits” angle. This lazy interpretation ignores the strong tradition within the Liberal Democrats of having open debate and grassroots influence on policy. Although I disagree with the motion, I welcome the chance for our party to debate the pros and cons of free schools.

So far too much of the public debate on free schools has been uninformed by the high-quality evidence that exists on the effects of free schools. In the document at the end of this post I show that the common criticisms of free schools (including those made by the authors of the motion) are not supported by the evidence. Indeed, free schools have benefited pupils overall where they have already been operating and there is no reason to think that England would be different. I hope that as many delegates as possible will read the evidence before the conference debate.

There are many reasons for the Lib Dems to support free schools but I will focus on one particularly good reason here (others can be found in the document below).

The current school system perpetuates inequality. Richer families have a much better chance of getting their children a good education than poorer families. Admissions to most state schools are based on proximity, which results in house price premiums of up to 26 percent. It also means that existing residential segregation is reflected in many state schools.

Free schools are likely to broaden choice for poor families in particular, partly because at least half of the groups interested in setting up free schools want to work with poor children. A lot of the criticism of school choice is based on the fear that poorer families will not be able to navigate the system. But there is no reason that the system has to be as complicated as it currently is in England: ballot-based or first come, first served admissions work very well in the USA and Sweden and are easy to understand. It is already Lib Dem policy to stop schools cherry-picking pupils, and this should apply to free schools too.

The experience of school choice in other countries does not support the idea that poor families can’t take advantage of it. On the contrary, when catchment areas were abolished in New Zealand low-income families were more likely to send their children to a school outside their old catchment area than middle- or high-income families. And in Edmonton, Canada, more than half of pupils go to a school other than their nearest one.

I am drafting an amendment to make the motion in favour of free schools, provided that Local Authorities have strategic oversight of schooling (though no veto on free schools); that free schools cannot cherry-pick pupils; and that the funding system is fair and does not increase the burden on already cash-strapped Local Authorities. I would welcome comments on the draft as well as signatories so that it can be debated at Conference. I can be contacted at n.c.w.smith[at]gmail[dot]com.

Niklas Smith is half-Swedish and has followed the development of free schools with interest. He was Junior Treasurer of Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats 2009-10.

Free schools: an evidence check

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  • Well said.parent lead local inititiztives like this are just the sort of thing liberal democrats should be supporting.

  • Would free schools help children with special needs?The free school model as described by the coalition government may put these children at a disadvantage.
    What system of checks and balances will there be?
    It is a very uncertain policy and needs much further scrutiny.

  • Norfolk boy 28th Aug '10 - 9:32pm

    It’s so wrong-headed it’s funny

    my nearest comp is four miles away – I don’t want the ‘choice’ of having to go even further

    our village primary was closed by the Tories – the nearest is three miles away

    you would never have entertained this before jumping into bed with the tories, and there’s nothing worse than people who ‘change their minds’ or follow a new party line when it suits. If you do really believe all this (as a teacher of 14 years standing I find the idea tragic and a poor excuse for addressing our real problems), then you are ill-informed about education and as Nich said, you ought to be in the Tory party

  • Andrew Suffield 28th Aug '10 - 9:34pm

    Personally, I’ve always found it quite simple: I can’t in good conscience oppose free schools in any form, because “the ability to set up a school” is a significant liberty that should only be restricted by reason of major public interest. It is right that people should be able to do this thing. Whether or not it’s the optimal model for education does not affect this.

    Now, that doesn’t run counter to the need for the state to ensure that all children get an acceptable quality of education and don’t have their own rights infringed. Free schools should still be held to all the same standards as state-run ones.

    I’m not going to fight for it though. Just because it’s right doesn’t make it important to me personally.

  • Leaving aside the (arguable) merits of free schools, how can a policy of funding new schools (even in areas where there are already surplus places at current schools) be justified when there is so much pressure on funding in every other area (including education)?

    Local authorities, of all parties, have been trying in recent years to reduce surplus places in order to save money – now, just when we are told big spending cuts are essential, the government wants to create more surplus places!

    It seems that, despite all the lectures about the deficit, extra money CAN be found, but only for pet Tory projects!

  • @Nich Starling
    10% on google would show you that your statement that ‘free schools have no obligation to have SEN children was wrong’

    I assume you are deliberately telling lies because you cannot come up with any valid arguments against free schools

  • I mean 10 seconds on google

  • It is curious how many people support “freedom” in the abstract, yet oppose attempts to widen the options open to people in everyday life.

    People who support “freedom” should automatically support any attempt to give people wider options. The burden of proof should be on the people who oppose the wider choices.

    The presumption should be that free schools are a good thing until they can be proven otherwise. I can’t help but feel that many people are looking at this the other way around.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Aug '10 - 10:49pm

    If by “waste taxpayer’s money” your claim is that introducing this “free schools” system would not cost any more, it is completely ridiculous. These are new schools, to be provided by taxpayers money given to anyone who wants to prove one? Yes? They are not private schools, they are funded by the taxpayer, and they will exist alongside the existing Local Authority schools.

    The running costs of those existing schools will not proportionately diminish to balance what is required to fund the new schools. If you propose that Local Authorities will have a proportionate cut in funding, then since they still have the same number of schools to maintain, they are in trouble – they are going to have to cut down on repairs and maintainance, and cope with those schools now having fewer pupils – which still requires the same number of teachers. Look, if a school has six classes covering each year with 30 pupils in each, and a third of the pupils leave to go to a new “free” school, you still need six classes now of 20, so you still need a teacher for each class.

    You say these “free schools” will be very handy to cover schools which have been closed down in rural areas. Look – no-one WANTS to close schools, the reason these rural schools get close is that they are expensive to run. If a school is in some rural area where there are only 10 children of each age group, it’s more costy to run because you need more teachers taht way. So if you open a “free” school because the Local Authority school has been closded dowm. it will STILL be expensive to run due to the high number of teachers required for a relatively small number of pupils.

    This is all so very obvious that I find it rather embarrassing that I have to write it down. Surely someone who is at Cambridge University shouldn’t need to have pointed out what I have pointed out.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Aug '10 - 11:17pm

    The current school system perpetuates inequality. Richer families have a much better chance of getting their children a good education than poorer families. Admissions to most state schools are based on proximity, which results in house price premiums of up to 26 percent. It also means that existing residential segregation is reflected in many state schools

    Look Niklas, why don’t people like you get it? The problem is that there are some kids who come from wealthy and well-educated families, bring those children all together and they will encourage each other on. There are some children who come from poor families who don’t have much experience of education, don’t have the contacts which would help them see how valuable education is, and who don’t have much idea of how to provide an intellectually stimulating home environment for children and don’t actually have any desire to do so – bring a whole load of children like that together, and they will drag each other down. I’m not saying it is all like that, of course there are some poor families who are passionate about education and provide a good intellectual home environment, just as there are some wealthy families who don’t provide a good home environment. However, there is a very strong correlation, and if anything it’s growing worse as the inequalties in British society grow.

    What “school choice” is REALLY about is the parents in the first lot trying to make sure their kids don’t end up mixing with the kids of the parents in the second lot.

    Now, however you mix and match, the kids in the second lot will still exist. You cannot magic them away. It is not the schools that are dragging the kids down, it is the kids who are dragging the schools down. So faffing around setting up more schools simply isn’t going to solve the problem. Now, you might just do it if you decided to throw a LOT of money at intensive education of the kids in the second lot. But didn’t you say these “free schools” aren’t intended to cost more money?

    Let me give you an example – students at Cambridge University are very easy to teach, because they are bright, just give them a little push and they will more or less go off and teach themselves, with just the odd bit of tutorial stear here and there. As you go down the university ranking scale, students get harder to teach, they aren’t so bright so they need more hand-holding, more s-l-o-w-l-y telling them things, intensive teaching to get them through the difficult stuff etc. However many universities you open isn’t going to solve that problem. You can’t just open another university, call it “Cambridge Mark II” and say “we’ll do in Cambridge Mark II what they do in the original Cambridge, so we will do just as well as them”. The bright students will still go to the original Cambridge, knowing it’s a very good university (mostly because it’s where the bright students go), and Cambridge Mark II will fill up with those who couldn’t get into the original Cambridge on account of not being bright enough to meet the entrance requirements, and so those students at Cambridge Mark II will STILL be harder to teach and will be less impressive than they graduate. There simply is no jiggery-pokery that gets round the problem that some are less bright than others and, underneath, yours is an argument that there is.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Aug '10 - 11:43pm

    Stephen W

    Opposing the entire legislation because of a shortage of funding seems to be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    I did not say whether I opposed the legislation, that would be another argument entirely. The point I was making was that the claim that opening these “free” schools would not result in more taxpayers’ money being spent is, at least so far as I can see, quite obviously wrong.

    The legislation appears to be, but I’m happy to be corrected if I am wrong, writing a massive blank cheque, as I’m not aware that it proposes any capping on the number of such schools, rather anyone who wants to run one and can prove they can gets the cash.

    Now, this may be all find and dandy (that’s another argument) if we were in a situation where our government was awash with money, so could afford to throw large amounts of it at social experiemts and reorganisation and the like. But I thought we LibDems nobly agreed to this coalition, despite it probably wrecking our party’s chances for election success next time round and maybe forever, on the grounds the government as so strapped for cash that doing what is necessary to bring costs down MUST be the absolute priority and we sacrifice all our other ideals until we sort that out. It’s somewhat harder dealing with angry ex-voters yelling “traitor, traitor, we didn’t vote for you to get all these cuts” if the government is acting as if it is awash with money one it comes to this “free schools” thing. Which, unless it is really intended to table the legislation and then say “sorry, we aren’t actually going to fund any of these things”, is what it is doing.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Aug '10 - 11:48pm

    Stephen W

    Also Niklas addresses this point in his actual document (I’ve just realised) in the first main section.

    I wrote what I wrote after reading that bit. Look, I was trying to be polite to Niklas, but essentially what he wrote there was so clueless and obviously wrong that I felt embarrased having to explain s-l-o-w-l-y just why.

  • As someone who went to a selective school I’m rather fond of them. I got an enormous amount from them that my parents could never have afforded me in terms of sending me to private school or moving to a good catchment area, or in terms of the costs of participating in extra curricular activities outside of school. Children of any ability should be entitled to an education as closely targeted at their ability and not their socio economic status as possible. How will free schools help to attain this?

  • The ‘freedom’ Stephen W talks about is merely privilege extended because it cannot and has never been experienced by one and all. I had the great ‘privilege’ of attending a comprehensive education the state provided me with the opportunity to develop intellectually, my parents were profoundly poor and disadvantaged but the state broke that circle. Don’t knock the state, understand and embrace it, it has acheived much more than naive individualism has ever done, particularly for the poor.

  • Matthew H

    On the funding point, I am not sure that what Niklas wrote was “so clueless and obviously wrong” as you suggest. Niklas’ paper does cover the funding point (the response to Criticism 1 on p2-3 of his paper) fairly thoroughly citing three research studies and presenting, at least in my opinion, a coherent and well supported argument for the effects of different funding models including one that would increase costs (the Netherlands model) but demonstrating the UK model would not. If you have similar quality research that suggests otherwise then that would be an important contribution to the debate.

    On your other (11:17) post about bright and less bright children and the environments in which they grow up and are educated, are you arguing against the concept of social mobilty? Or just that the free school system would not contribute to increasing social mobility? Again, Niklas presents some pretty solid looking evidence (response to Criticism 3, p3-4 of his paper) on how the free school system helps break down these barriers. Maybe you have similar quality evidence to the contrary which would support your contention.

    Personally, I am really encouraged to see some evidenced based policy discussion around and we owe it to Niklas to respond with the same informed level of debate even – particularly – if we disagree with him.

  • I’m very impressed with the work the author has done.

    That said, I do have a bit of scepticism about this. Before the coaltion, Lib Dem politicians opposed this policy as well as many other Tory policies. Many of the arguments proposed by some Lib Dems now seem like a retrospective justification for Conservative policies which they opposed (I’m assuming on good grounds) during the election.

    @ Matthew Huntbach

    I don’t think your argument is very valid, but it is often repeated. You, use Cambridge as an example. Well the fact of the matter is that the supply (places for high-achievers) that Oxbridge provides simply now cannot meet the demand. There are more people who objectively ‘deserve’ (by attaining the grades) a place at Oxbridge and other leading universities than there are places for these people. This was not a problem 20 years ago but it is a problem today. We are sooner or later, as a country, going to have to allow other universities to be treated with the same amount of prestige and be given the same amount of money as Oxbridge/Cambridge are, as equally capable students increasingly find themselves graduating from other univerisites.

    The fact that 40% of students at Oxbridge come from private schools whilst private school students make up 6% of the student population (if I am not mistaken) shows that education itself is clearly a more important factor than simply being ‘bright’ (unless you think that this difference can be made up for b the fact that private school students are ‘naturally’ more intelligent- a statistical absurdity if you look at IQ scores and grades, for example).

    Free schools can be argued for on a similar vein. There is simply too much demand for genuinely good ‘free’ education in this country, and unless state schools can be improved across the board something is going to have to be done about that.

  • matthew fox 29th Aug '10 - 9:37am

    Shame the Lib dems don’t support free school meals. As usually the Right like to balance the books on the stomaches of children, and Libdems have come around to that idea.

  • Andrew Suffield 29th Aug '10 - 10:27am

    You say these “free schools” will be very handy to cover schools which have been closed down in rural areas. Look – no-one WANTS to close schools, the reason these rural schools get close is that they are expensive to run. If a school is in some rural area where there are only 10 children of each age group, it’s more costy to run because you need more teachers taht way. So if you open a “free” school because the Local Authority school has been closded dowm. it will STILL be expensive to run due to the high number of teachers required for a relatively small number of pupils.

    Actually this is a good example. Suppose that this did happen (perhaps to a slightly larger school) – and suppose that the parents were convinced the school should have been affordable, but that its local authority management had been wasteful and inefficient. Assuming they can put together a convincing plan (perhaps with supplementary fundraising efforts), it seems pretty reasonable to let them have a go at something the state has clearly failed to accomplish.

  • Schools succeed when they have three things:
    1) motivated teachers
    2) motivated pupils
    3) motivated parents.

    Unless you can solve 2&3 – especially 3 – it doesn’t matter who runs schools or what you call them. Kids who don’t see any point in learning and have parent who don’t care will continue to fail.

  • Didn’t Nick Clegg vote against greater autonomy for schools or is my memory playing tricks again?

  • My word Niklas you do not address the point of principle concerning equality of opportynity for the poor. This proposals pander to a small middle-class minority who quite simply should they be indulged, there children are no more important than the poorest man or woman child. This proposal offers no quarantees and this is the critical weakness in your thesis it does not address this fundamental issue of socio-economic disadvantage but then again I don’t think you really want to engage with this.

  • I agree, free schools can be a good thing BUT not at the cost of excluding local level decisions in favour of a few pushy parents. This government is all for localism after all.

  • @Matthew
    have you any idea how offensive your comment is:
    “bring a whole load of children like that together, and they will drag each other down”
    Imagine if a tory said that they didn’t want to let working class children into schools because they would bring everyone down . You would rightly condemn anyone who said this.
    Also baffled by your comments, which I ma sure are accurate about the difference between students at Cambridge and other universities. Doesn’t this imply that we should have schools on a similar basis whereby the sort of teaching could be geared to the ability of the students?

  • I haven’t read all the above, but it seems to me there is a far bigger problem than “free” (or not) schools, and that is Faith Schools. And if Free Schools implies Faith Schools, I’m agin ’em. I could make a lot of the arguments myself, but instead, see http://www.channel4.com/programmes/faith-school-menace/episode-guide/series-1/episode-1
    It’s available for another 19 days and, IMHO, well worth watching.

  • I think Niklas is correct – ideologically the idea of setting up a school without the state fits very well with Liberal principles – thankfully the debate around closing down private schools is confined to the far left of the Labour party and not even widespread there.

    The problem with free schools for me is that funds for existing schools are diminishing, and yet there is money available for very small, specialist free schools which offer poorer value for taxpayer £ per pupil.

    Yet I can see several scenarios where free schools would be a useful addition to the community such as in rural or isolated areas where the nearest comprehensive is half an hour’s drive away, or in areas where oversubscription results in children only being offered a place in a school in another town. Free schools could provide another option, with parents then having the choice of private school, free school or state school. Ideologically, we should welcome the ability for communities to open schools.

    Where we should really fight the Tories is over religious influence in schools. Religious groups have more of an incentive to open schools, particularly evangelical groups. A commitment to proper science and sex education should be part of the agreement to set up a school, it is not in the interest of the country to have scientology schools, or westboro baptist church type views being taught as fact because the government have surrendered all control of the curriculum.

  • Labour closed down loads of smaller schools in favour large centralised schools. Children are forced to commute bigger distances. Transport costs are higher (and kids are less healthy cos they can’t bike/walk/skate to school), and the kids lose free (socialising, playing, educating themselves thru hobbies etc) time. Bullying and the issue of gangs is more of a problem in large schools. The kids also feel less connected to the community in which they live than they would if their school was part of that community. This barely scratches the surface of the unnecessary problems created.

    Here is the problem with the State controlling who can open schools:

    1. The law states, under Section 7 of the 1996 Act, that it is the parent’s duty:
    ‘to cause (the child) to receive efficient full time education suitable to his/her age, ability and aptitude and to any special educational needs he/she may have either by regular attendance at school or “otherwise” ‘

    2. Labour wanted it so that the State got to make all the choices about schools – where to open one, how to run it, what curriculum and exams the school would be allowed to use, etc. Obviously they left some loopholes for a few expensive private schools so that the MPs and other VIPs had more options. Some other schools have managed to take advantage of these loopholes, eg some Montessori primaries.
    However as a result of these policies, parents have been disempowered of their ability to fulfil their duty under Section 7, unless the parent either feels the State option fulfils their duty, or they are able to find and take advantage of a private option.

    3. However, if a parent decides that what the state is offering does not satisfy their duty, and they are unable to find a State approved private school that will allow them to do so, the last option available to them is to home educate*. Some parents do choose to do this, but others would prefer to use a small school model, with themselves and other community members taking responsibility that the school will provide everything necessary for the parent’s legal duty to the children to be filled.
    (*Note that Labour repeatedly attacked home education as part of their policy on controlling all children’s access to education, except as mentioned the children of VIPs for whom loopholes were provided.)

    4. Because the legal duty for a child’s education falls on the parents, schools (and the government’s education dept, whatever it is called that year) bear no legal obligation or responsibility for it.
    So if a child (because it is their legal right to which Section 7 is responding) regards their education as unsuitable (as many do), neither the school nor the State (nor any other body that helps determine the education provided by the school) is legally liable.

    If a child (who is registered with a school) chooses not to go, it is defined as ‘truancy’ and parents can be fined and even jailed because *the child’s truancy is the parent’s legal responsibility*, not the schools. The child is seen in law as not getting the education to which they are entitled (rather than expressing their own right to determine where the education take place and in what form) therefore the parent is failing in their legal duty.

    You end up with bizarre situations where a parent marches an uncooperative child into the school grounds, leaves the child under the watch of school staff (because most parents can’t stay in the school all day), then the kid leaves the building themselves – and the parent is the person held legally liable for the child missing education. The school and the State hold none of this responsibility.

    So – yes parents and other members of a community should be able to open and run their own schools, in order to fulfil their own legal duty to their children.

    Really, the only obligations they should have to meet are that:

    a/ they should have is to get the best deal out of any money they get from the state (which is partly their money as taxpayers and so their children should be as entitled to it as any other children).

    b/ the curriculum and timetable – the way they organise their school – should fulfil the parents duty as in Section 7 (which is more than you can say for a number of state schools).

    Of course those who disagree could always go for The Other Option – try to change primary legislation. Make schools and State legally responsible for education instead of the parents. I can imagine the lawsuits stacking up now. Plus, a lot of parents (home educators for example) actually enjoy and take their responsibility seriously and wouldn’t let such a fundamental change happen.

    All of the above, shorter – if parents have the legal duty to provide the education, then they should be able to carry it out without being obstructed by a State which takes none of the responsibility.

    And for anyone claiming this is an anti working class issue – the people who stand to gain the most from the ability to run their own schools in their own communities aren’t the rich or the middle class, but the working class and the poor. We will be able to gather our own resources – and we may not be loaded financially but we do have resources – and offer our kids much better options than the state currently does. Including relevant and practical vocational training (as opposed to utterly useless tick box NVQs and theory based GCSEs which employers, crafts and trades people in our communities despair of), a sense of real community, and a chance of the kids actually getting their voice heard. No one can possibly think that state controlled schools have any interest in what kids have to say – truanting might be taken as a serious indictment of school rather than as a parents legal failure if that were true.

    To claim that we do not have the resources to fulfil our legal obligation to our children, when in reality you are blocking us from doing it – and refusing us our own tax money back to do it! – is the most patronising, infantilising, bullshit. The middle class has had its go at controlling education through the state and no one better than us knows how disastrous that has been for our communities, our abilities, our achievements, and our culture.

    Sorry this is so long.

  • Stepen and Niklas with the greatest of respect – what evidence? While the principal journal you reference is a 4 star rated journal on the Abs list there are clear flaws in its data and methodology. I could go in-depth about the technical aspect of their examination, particularly multivariate analysis but this is neither the time nor the place. However, this is often the proplem when accepting some peer reviewed journals as fact – they are not unless they include all factors in captured national data which this does not . Niklas you are making the mistake many students in my experience make in divorcing ‘evidence’ from its intermediate environment. Regardless of this, the failure to understand the financial impications upon the disadvantaged is the key weakness of this policy

    This is a product of a complete disconnection by the Lib Dem in understanding poverty, there is no such thing as the deserving or underseving poor just the poor. The incrediably patronising comments here and elsewhere show the level of this disconnection. As I’ve said earlier I was brought up in what would was a deprived background the direct intervention of the state has positively transformed my life. I owe it a deep, deep dept of gratitude – it works. It is the safety net for those unaware or unable to direct or intervene in their children’s education. As a society we must look after all its members, particularly the weakest and it this challenge that is being avoided, I wonder why?

  • Bryan – it wasnt a safety net for me, or for many others I can think of. It was the net that trapped us in the first place, and kept us there.

    School may work for some but there is abundant evidence that State schools are obstructing a significant proportion of children from achieving an education that fulfils all or any of the childs potential. Parents need to have other options if they are to satisfy their legal duty to their children.

  • Nikki, the growth in charter schools has occurred despite inconclusive evidence that they are academically superior to their traditional public school counterparts. Discrepant findings from five rigorous studies underscore this point: one study found positive effects (Solomon & Goldschmidt, 2004); three found mixed effects (Booker, Gilpatric, Gronberg, & Jansen, 2004; Hanushek, Kain, Rivkin, & Branch, 2005; Sass, 2006); and one found negative effects (Bifulco & Ladd, 2006). The Solomon & Goldschmidt paper you referenced does not engage with organisational conditions, teacher turnover or the extent to which these differences are explained by variations in teacher characteristics and contextual factors such as demographic characteristics.

  • L, sorry to read this. I agree there must be a better way but free schools are not it.

    Niklas I’ve just noticed I’ve been calling you Nikki, apologises thats old age for you.

  • Bryan – so what is a better way then?

    Should the law be changed so that the legal duty for education belongs to the State, or to the LA, or to the School, or shared between all the above as well as the parents? That would cause a lot of confusion and most likely would not serve children well.

    Should schools change so that their direction is determined by a combination of local community (parents, children, employers)? I can’t see LAs or government going for that, and imagine the uproar from teacher’s and headteacher’s unions. Then you’d have the examiners and all the big school suppliers etc moaning that their near monopoly was being undermined too.

    Ideally, this option would be the one we put into operation but can you imagine how big the scrap would be? It could take years, and kids at school now would be adults by the time it was settled, so that’s another generation failed.

    Decentralised state schools to the local authorities doesnt go far enough – they need to be given to the communities of people that they serve. Essentially, schools, teachers, and curriculum are all sub-contracted by parents, in order to satisfy the parents legal duty to the child. But the parent and the child have the tiniest amount of say in what or how the school provides that service.

    Because this fundamental truth of law and reality is generally ignored, there is no real pressure on LAs or the State to give up the power they have over state school education. They can wrangle with each other over and basically ignore us, after all, they have all the power but noone is making them take any responsibility.

    Because the needs and desires of parents and kids arent even getting a look in (they allow ‘parent governer’ bodies but they have next to no real power in the system, really), all the emphasis being on the balance of central state or local authority decision making, parents are not able to access real options to do their duty and therefore some (I would argue many) kids are being denied access to the education they are legally entitled to.

    State and local authorities need to acknowledge they are sub contracted by us to provide a service. Labour disempowered communities from opening and running their own schools by using law and ‘policy’ to block us from going elsewhere with our business. We need to change that, and small schools and home education are the best options we have right now, short of chucking the authorities out of schools altogether.

  • Niklas, L and Stephen W the relationship between these factors is complicated and this forum is useful in meaningfully highlighting the issues. I would strongly agree that flexibility of provision is a good thing, however access is a great concern as without direct electoral accountability any organisation become a club propogating indiversity and inequality. I personally favour any form of parental involvement but it must be in engagement with the key actors and agents as outlined by L.

    The issue comes down to what the purpose of education is, I live in Wimbledon village and the private school, Kings College was recently greatly upset that my former alma mater, Edinburgh University applied a positive discrimination policy: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/7480481/Edinburgh-University-discriminating-against-students-from-southern-England.html However all this revealed was that these institutions consider these opportunities as theres by right not merit and they have the arrogance and conceit to disregard any other factor. The replication of private school and its values frightens me to death because without real safeguards we will be reproducing a deeply flawed system.

  • Stuart Mitchell 29th Aug '10 - 6:37pm

    Andrew Suffield: “I can’t in good conscience oppose free schools in any form, because [it] is a significant liberty… It is right that people should be able to do this thing. Whether or not it’s the optimal model for education does not affect this.”

    That’s terrible – it’s the very worst kind of political thought process. Whether children get a good education or not is so much more important than your desire for ideological purity.

    On this one issue, I guess I conform to the centrist stereotype that Lib Dems have of Labour supporters. I have no doubt that free schools will improve standards in some schools. It’s perfectly possible that they could help overall standards to rise. But if this is all achieved at the expense of the creation of failing ghetto schools in deprived areas – which I think it will – then the policy will stink to high heaven.

    The most fundamental and unshakeable of all my political beliefs is the idea that young people should as much as possible have equality of opportunity, of a high level I really don’t see any way of bringing that about without a huge dollop of central control. That said, I’m always pragmatic and if somebody could show me a market-driven method to achieve the same thing then I’d be happy to endorse it, but I’m quite sure that free schools isn’t it. Please note: equality of opportunity for parents is not the same as equality of opportunity for children.

    What we should be aiming for is an educational system which offers the same high levels of quality and opportunity in every single school in the country. Note that if we had such a system, then pretty much every parent would be happy to send their child to the school closest to them. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a more sure indication of dismal failure in an education system than the fact that most parents wish to burden themselves with the inconvenience of sending their kids to a school further away. Quite why the OP thinks the situation in Edmonton says anything good about education in Edmonton, I don’t know.

    Parents should not *have* to choose a good school for their kids; every school available should be a good school. Unrealistic? Utopian? I don’t think so. There seem to be plenty of people around who know how to run schools well – my approach would be to take their expertise and roll it out to every school in the land, not just a lucky few.

  • @Niklas Smith: That’s rather more an argument against early selection and against permanent selection, in which pupils cannot move up or down should they prove more able or cannot cope.

  • @Andrew Suffield says: “I can’t in good conscience oppose free schools in any form, because “the ability to set up a school” is a significant liberty that should only be restricted by reason of major public interest. It is right that people should be able to do this thing. Whether or not it’s the optimal model for education does not affect this.”

    Your point here seems to be self-refuting since if a free school is not an optimal model for education, then public interest demands it shouldn’t happen. I think you mean something else here.

  • The real absurdity here is why we should be proposing to imitate the Swedish system when according to the OECD’s PISA rankings it is a second rate one compared with say Finland or Japan. In the 2006 study, Sweden was only average in science and way below the UK. On reading, Sweden scored better than the UK, above average, but way below the leaders. On maths, Sweden was again only average, very close to the UK score.

    So, basically we are proposing to conduct a major experiment that has been shown to produce second rate results in another country. The reason? Because it fits neatly with the ideological mindset that says competition and choice is always best. This is based on the false premise that “choice” will help the most disadvantaged in society. In reality, the exercise of choice is dependent on knowledge and social skills. Pushy middle class parents are the best at mobilising their resources in these areas, while those children who have less socially adept parents or those who are not engaged in the educational process will naturally be pushed aside. Middle class parents are also more likely to have access to resources like e.g. a second car that enable them to ferry kids to multiple schools outside their immediate local area.

    The choice agenda in public services, in education as in health, is utterly misconceived when it comes to helping the most disadvantaged in society. It is dreamt up by well off people who themselves have the resources to exercise choice and can’t imagine what it is like not to. The fact is, most people want one good local school, one good local hospital where they can trust that particular standards will be kept to and sufficient resources will be provided to do the job required. The free schools policy, while satisfying some vague notion of liberty, threatens standards for the rest by sucking educational resources from elsewhere in the system.

  • I think my objections to free schools differ enough from those in Niklas’ document for me to post with little comment on the direction taken by the above discussions. Hope that’s OK.

    Any web search for ‘free schools’ or indeed a look at the conveners of the free school fringe events at the Autumn Conference, shows that there are already many educational publishing companies and self-styled ‘consultants’ vying to make a profit, where legally allowed, from their association with setting up free schools. Do we want to divert educational funding via more companies, when we already have an excellent education system? Far from saving money, each free school will end up paying for services (payroll, admin of grants such as the Pupil Premium and SEN funding etc) currently done centrally by the LA.

    The news articles I have seen about groups planning to set up free schools included a proposal to operate in a church hall. What a sad lack of facilities for the pupils. And what a stark contrast to the purpose-built buildings that were denied to thousands of pupils through the scrapping of the BSF project.

    Any erosion of the national pay and conditions for state school teachers will be harmful for the profession. Most teaching posts are not filled by market forces, but by teachers committed to their local area, their pupils, their subject and to the belief that our state system provides equal opportunity for all. The national pay scale ensures that all our schools can benefit from excellent teaching staff. The unions and the GTC all claim we have in our schools the best qualified and well-trained workforce ever. The comment from my pupils that breaks my heart the most is ‘you have all those qualifications, Miss, and you only wanted to be a teacher!?’, as though they do not feel they deserve well-qualified, intelligent staff (which my colleagues are!). (It’s a Tory area and, sadly, many of the students start out thinking that private schools are somehow superior – one colleague was told ‘you’re a good teacher, I bet you could get a job in a private school’). (If it’s a problem with public perception of state schools that is being addressed politically, free schools will be a short-lived veneer of novelty).

    I object to the notion of ‘the worst schools’, which appears at the end of Niklas’ document. There are schools with lower results and lower reputations than others, but schools are incredibly complex places, shaped by their intake and by their staff, and those ranking lowest are not necessarily doing anything wrong. Parents seem to want to pile all their hopes for their children on to their school, but home environment and home attitude to study have a far greater effect.

    Niklas has provided us with a handy summary of publications on projects similar to the free schools proposal. However, a few studies on other countries making a go of their models does not convince me that it is wise to begin to dismantle our good state system.

  • Broadly speaking I agree with @Robert C at 6.44pm.

    While it can be illuminating to explore educational systems in other countries, even if we were to identify systems that worked in their own social and cultural context (and it can be debated whether that is the case for free schools in Sweden) the conclusion that transferring the policy to the UK will deliver similar outcomes has to be drawn extremely cautiously. There are too many cases of incautious and unsuccessful policy transfer to be anything other than circumspect.

    Education is a complex process, with a multitude of both inputs (only some of which are delivered by schools) and outcomes/outputs (only some of which are formal qualifications). One has to be careful in drawing analogies with other sectors or economic activities. As was noted above, two bookshops can give consistent and high standards of service and that this is facilitated by competition is undoubtedly true. I would respectfully suggest it has very little to tell us about how to provide a complex and multifaceted service in which the ‘service users’ individually and collectively have a significant role to play in outcomes for themselves and, through peer group effects, other service users.

    Some of the discussion above alludes to the idea that education is a positional good: there are social advantages conferred by attending “the best” schools or universities which go beyond a piece of paper listing academic achievement. There is no plausible organisational reform that can remove the positional component to consumption. Any attempt to do so is doomed to failure because what constitutes ‘the best’ is simply redefined.

    One strand of this discussion has circled around the question of whether it is patronising to suggest that some members of society are better able (for whatever reason) to exercise choice than others. That frequently gets aligned with social class. This is an important issue and goes to the heart of the choice agenda (in schools and elsewhere). On the one hand there is research evidence, including looking back over the quasi-marketisation of education in England in 1990s, that parents engaged with the system differentially, to the (dis)advantage of their children. That differential engagement did tend to align with social class. That doesn’t mean to say that all working class parents were incapable of choosing wisely, any more that it meant that all middle class parents valued education for their children and choose what was best for them. But it meant that there was a tendency for parental levels of education aspiration and achievement to be replicated among children. If one acknowledges this risk is that patronising? If one denies that risk and assumes that one person is as capable of exercising choice as the next person then that might deliver equality of opportunity of a sort, but without ensuring that everyone is able to capitalise on that opportunity. We can adopt a rhetoric (and a policy) that valorises choice above everything and then wonder why it doesn’t do a lot to address disadvantage.

    Equally, that isn’t just a point about choice mechanisms, because there is evidence that whatever the system of service provision – including non-choice based conventional welfare services – those who are socially skilled will come out on top.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Aug '10 - 1:19am


    have you any idea how offensive your comment is:
    “bring a whole load of children like that together, and they will drag each other down”

    And there we go – this IS the central problem, but we can’t talk about it because it is “offensive”.

    Look – if it were a matter of the schools themselves being the problem rather than the mix of pupils in them, we would see “good” and “bad” schools evenly distributed. We don’t. Schools deemed “good” are OVERWHELMINGLY in wealthy areas, schools deemed “bad” are OVERWHELMINGLY in poor areas. The correlation is plain and obvious, yet you are saying we have to pretend it isn’t there and we can’t talk about why it works out like that because it is “offensive”.

    I’ve SEEN this, in my own growing up on a council estate, and in the part of the world where I live. What I describe is EXACLY how it happens. Yet you tell me it is “offensive” to say what I have seen and experienced myself.

    It’s not to say that the children who are dragging each other down are bad people, simply that they don’t come from backgounds where there are the sort of contacts that make education seem relevant, or where it is considered natural to do things like read books or have other intellectual pursuits. As a consequence there is not that mutual support for education amongst the children. Instead, there is a relentless bullying of anyone who doesn’t fit into the “norm”. For some reason, this problem seems to be getting worse. It was bad in my days, but from what I hear from younger people, it is hugely worse now – unless you are 100% with the trashy in-your-face strutting and posturing and contenpt to anyting intellectual culture, you’re dead. They will probably call you a “poofter”, though I suppose you’ll regard it as “offensive” for me to say that, though that is just what hapens – homophobic abuse is aimed at anyone who doesn’t fit into the norm, it has nothing to do with what is their sexual orientation.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Aug '10 - 1:58am

    Tim F

    On the funding point, I am not sure that what Niklas wrote was “so clueless and obviously wrong” as you suggest. Niklas’ paper does cover the funding point (the response to Criticism 1 on p2-3 of his paper) fairly thoroughly citing three research studies and presenting, at least in my opinion, a coherent and well supported argument for the effects of different funding models including one that would increase costs (the Netherlands model) but demonstrating the UK model would not. If you have similar quality research that suggests otherwise then that would be an important contribution to the debate.

    Yes, as I have already said I wrote what I wrote AFTER reading what Niklas wrote in response to Criticism 1.

    His argument is that a proportionate cut in local authority school funding to match the numbers going to these new national state schools will not be a problem. You need only look at the budget of any local authority which has schools with falling numbers of pupils to see that this is NOT the case. As I already wrote, if a school loses a third of its pupils, its running costs do not go down by a third. Repairs and maintennace stay much the same, it isn’t easy to reduce the numbers of teachers, partiocualrly in a primary school where there is one teacher per year group.

    Let’s consider what happens when a “free school” opens up and attracts a substantial proportion of the pupils who would otherwise go to what is regarded as a “bad” local authority school. As I have said, though it was regarded as “offensive” to say this, the reason that school was “bad” was that many of its pupils came from deprived backgrounds. The likelihood is that those parents living where their children would normally go to that “bad” school but who do care about education, would send them to that “free” school. So now that “bad” school is half-empty and even more dominated by children coming from a background which militates aganst their educational success. As the school is half-empty, you will tend to find that pupils who got expelled from other schools, or pupils from recent immigrant backgrounds are sent there as well on the grounds the school is half-empty so should be the one taking on any pupils they are asked to take. This will tend to make its performance even worse. That will then be held up as evidence that local authority schools are “bad” and these “free” schools are good.

    If you try to close that “bad” school, funnily enough you will find that sentiment makes it hard – there are always local people or ex-pupils who will launch a campaign to keep it open. Plus, obviously, teachers there who tried hard under difficult circumstances and don’t want the sack and the reputation of having been at a “bad” school.

    If you do manage to close it, the pupils who dragged it down STILL exist. Now they have to be bussed out to other parts of town as there isn’t a school in that part any more.

    I’m aware that part of the issue here is that Britain now has a much more brutally unequal class sytem than Sweden and the Netherlands, and this may contribute to why I fear the whole thing won’t work as it does there. But it seems some people here don’t like the idea of there being these being class divisions so they will say “lah lah lah, I don’t agree with social class divisions, so I will pretend they don’t exist, and condemn as ‘offensive’ anyone who tries to talk about them”. I wish there weren’t this huge inequality as well, but I’m not afraid to talk about it.

    The funny thing is that much of what it is claimed there “free” schools will provide is ALREADY THERE in the existing local authority system. It is simply not the case that in the existing sytem the LEA forces everyone to go to their closest school, there is actually a fair amount of choice. Also, what goes on in schools is decided by the governors and head of the school, NOT by the LEA and they have much more autonomy than many of those arguing for “free” schools suppose. I say this from direct experience – my wife was Chair of Governors of a LEA primary school, while I was a councillor in the same LEA. I wished in my position I could have infleunced what the schools taught and how they taught it, as I have a lot of views on that, but I couldn’t. My wife, however, seemed to have quite a lot of influence, exactly how much depends on the relationship between the Head and the Chair, but it was never the case that she felt the problem was the LEA dictating to her because it didn’t. During her time as Chair, the school rose from near the bottom of the LEA league table to near the top, and the number of applicants to number of places available greatly increased. From this, and also having spoken to other people involved in LEA schools, I just haven’t found anyone who can reallly tell me what a “free” school would give that isn’t already available in a LEA school. My wife found the advice from the LEA helpful in a number of difficult matters that inevitably arise in an inner city school. The main thing about a “free” school seems tobe it no longer has this advice.

  • Andrew Stephenson 31st Aug '10 - 7:44am

    Good article.

    What could be more liberal or democratic than allowing local groups of people to rest control of their own children’s education, instead of having to submit their most precious and loved children to a bloated uncaring state system dominated by a stalinist one-size-fits-all comprehensive mentality, with schools full of bullying, swearing, disrespect and a dog-eat-dog playground mentality.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Aug '10 - 8:04am

    Andrew Stephenson, when you write “stalinist one-size-fits-all comprehensive mentality” what actually do you mean? As I have already written local authority schools actually have a fair amount of autonomy. The state control of them comes from the National Curriculum, which was introduced by Mrs Thatcher’s government. I find it rather amusing that the same sort of right-wing commentators who in those days were saying the problem with local authority schools was that they were full of loony left teachers doing their own thing so they needed to have this discipline imposed now say the problem is all grey uniformity and centrally-imposed discipline. I think this illustrates the uselessness, bias and out-of-touch nature of these commentators – they pontificate despite not having a clue because they all went to private school and so did everyone they know.

    In reality, I’m not saying the idea is all bad, but it’s just so poisoned by most people pushing it doing so with their minds full of prejduice and with a complete lack of knowledge of the reality they are talking about.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Aug '10 - 8:13am

    Andrew Stephenson, “with schools full of bullying, swearing, disrespect and a dog-eat-dog playground mentality”, yes. But that’s how the kids are these days. And isn’t this VERY far from “Stalinism”? I think you will find that under Stalinist communism, schools were very disciplined with pupils forced to respect authority. Isn’t bullying, swearing, and dog-eat-dog how our children are now taught to be by popular culture? Isn’t this strutting in-your-face attitude what most modern entertainment is all about? This sort of society and attitude is what the free market economy has given us. We are told that dog-eat-dog is good, that forcing your way to the top is good, that this sort of competition in which we are all fighting agianst each other and respecting no-one but ourslves is good, ebcvause it means the best will win out.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Aug '10 - 8:23am

    Andrew Stephenson with this “bloated uncaring state system”, who is it that is not caring? Is it the teachers? So why will they care more when teaching in these “free schools”? Is it the administrators? So why would they care more in these “free schools”? Do I find when dealing with private corporations that they are any more caring than public ones? NO, NO, NO! How much time have I spent screaming down the phone at clueless people in call centres when dealing with banks, telephone companies, etc etc? I certainly don’t find much caring there, though I do find profiteering has taken away the human touch, as shown by the call centre mentality. And the fat cat City directors with their huge pay packages, and all those people there trading shares and derivitives and takig huge cuts for themselves are in reality a very bloated bureaucracy.

    OK, I am giving you as good as you have on political bias. Perhaps when we can drop the bias and discuss these things objectively, we can better come to a solution on how best to educte oru children.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Aug '10 - 8:52am


    Also, a big reason we have failing ghetto schools at the moment (because we do – just look at the dreadful GCSE results for many ethnic minorities, for example) is that the people who live in those deprived areas have no other school to send their children to: they can’t afford private school fees and they can’t afford to move to a leafy suburb.

    Yes, but if it is the nature of the pupils in these schools that is causing the problem, how is sending the same children to a different school going to solve the problem? And if it is all to do with the school itself being “bad” and nothing to do with the pupils, how come all these “bad” schools are in areas where poor people live?

    As for “dreadful GCSE results for many ethnic minorities”, just which might that be? Many Asian ethnic minority groups perform better in terms of school qualifications than white British pupils. Once you factor in social class, the poorest performers are the white working class.

  • @Matthew
    Your comments are very frightening (genuinely) if this is the culture. Makes me even more pleased can afford private education.

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