Can Free Schools Deliver?
Free Schools' offer a new form of 'independent' education. But what do they mean for the existing independent sector? Attain's Editor, Matthew Smith, unpicks the facts.
Within just hours of the Coalition Government taking office, the Department for Children, Schools and Families had been renamed the Department for Education. The name change was symbolic of a renewed intent to shake up education provision with a clear message of change - and at the centre of this was a radical new programme called 'Free Schools' and a massive expansion of academies. But since the announcement the gloss has begun to lose its shine. The number of schools seeking academy status was far less than the initial level of interest implied. This came on the back of a fiasco over spending cuts on new school buildings which saw Education Secretary, Michael Gove, 'unreservedly apologise' for confusion over errors in a list of cancelled projects. The episode was a considerable blow to overall public confidence in the new Department. So much has been promised but can the Coalition deliver its radical educational agenda, and especially the flagship 'Free Schools'?
It is important first to define a 'Free School'. According to the Department for Education, Free Schools are 'all-ability state-funded schools set up in response to parental demand'. In addition, under plans for Free Schools 'it will become much easier for charities, universities, businesses, educational groups, teachers and groups of parents to get involved and start new schools'. There is a plan to 'remove the red tape' which prevents new schools from being established, particularly through a reform of the planning laws and the Department's own restrictions on the use of certain premises.
The Department is keen to emphasise that Free Schools will have a variety of freedoms, much the same as academies: freedom to set their own pay and conditions for staff; freedom from following the National Curriculum; freedom to change the length of their terms and school days; but not freedom from accountability. All Free Schools will be assessed in the same way as other maintained schools, through inspection by Ofsted. They are also, like academies, free from local authority control, perhaps the most radical and politically sensitive aspect. Where they differ from academies is that they are normally brand new schools whereas academies are usually a change to an existing maintained school.
The inspiration for Free Schools comes from the US and the successful Charter Schools movement. These were set up by teachers in deprived areas and have been shown to close the attainment gap between pupils from inner city neighbourhoods and those in the wealthiest suburbs. One example is the Knowledge Is Power Programme (KIPP) which has enabled 85 per cent of its students to go on to college despite over 80 per cent coming from low income families. If this kind of level of success can be emulated on this side of the Atlantic, the Free Schools movement will be an epoch-making moment; if it fails, it will go down as yet another example of Government meddling and educational incompetence.
Much press coverage has been devoted to the notion of parents starting their own schools. To do this, they need to ensure that they can fulfil certain criteria, including their suitability to establish and run a school. In addition, they need to have clear educational aims and objectives, and sufficient capacity and capability to implement these. They must show evidence of demand; prove financial viability; find suitable premises; and recruit suitable leadership and management for the school. Finally, the need to have an ability and willingness to meet the Independent School Standards devised by the Government plus the funding or grant agreement established. If that does not put off a group of parents completely, they can then push forward with an application.
The actual process of application is however slightly odd. All applications are first directed to a charitable organisation, the New Schools Network (NSN), for guidance and support. NSN is not a long running, established organisation, having only effectively started last year. The Government have entrusted them with #500,000 of funding to assist groups wanting advice to establish schools. The Department justifies working with NSN on the basis that 'there is a need for support at local level for groups interested in setting up Free Schools. The NSN has already built up a large network of such groups as well as experience in supporting them; the Department does not have that experience.'
Although NSN has some very well-respected backers and advisers, it is surprising that such a new body has been entrusted with frontline responsibility for the flagship educational policy of the Coalition Government. Furthermore, it is curious that the Department feels that it is both desirable and appropriate that this is handled by an external organisation, rather than internally and with the assistance of the Civil Service. In a letter sent by the Department to NSN on 18th June, it sets out the requirements of the role and the Key Performance Indicators which will be used to assess the relationship. The grant is to be reviewed in November, 'taking into account its performance against the above KPIs and in light of demand from groups wanting to establish free schools.' The letter continues: 'Ministers will consider the longer term need for support in implementing the free schools policy in due course. If they decide that continued support is required the Department will run an open procurement for this work and NSN will be free to tender'. It will be interesting to see how this relationship develops.
But are parents really going to set up schools? Ask most Headteachers and they could give myriad reasons why parents are the last people that should be involved in running education; but Free Schools are 'parental choice' personified. In the Secretary of State's eyes, you can harness the passion and drive of like-minded parents to create fabulous new schools. But the drive and passion is born out of frustration and despair at their existing local provision; how many of these parents will still wish to be involved in running a Free School once their children have moved on? More concerning perhaps is the inescapable reality of petty politics, spats and egos which will hamper even the best intentioned projects. Which comes back to the fact that parents are, sadly, too close to education to be allowed to sit in the driving seat; despite the headlines, the catalysts will seldom be parents but other groups and bodies instead. It will take remarkable drive and determination by a group of parents to succeed, with Toby Young's West London Free School likely to form the benchmark.
But what effect will these changes have on independent schools? Has the sector's most treasured possession, its independence, now been diluted by the state? The simple answer is no. The pretenders might look similar but the reality is that Free School 'independence' does not mean being let off the leash completely; they are free to roam but the 'electronic tag' of state control cannot be removed. Academic selection - coupled with burdensome state bureaucracy - remain the biggest separators of the two sectors. Yet for a struggling independent school, these might be prices worth paying to escape the financial realities of a long recession, and the Government would be willing to receive them. Parent-funded independent schools can become state-funded instead but need to meet the entry criteria, including 'an agreement that their admissions policy is in line with the Admissions Code, demonstrate they have a good record of success as an education provider and financial viability'. Most importantly for some, they 'will not be able to retain any existing academic selection admission arrangements' and they will need to consider if all current staff have qualified teacher status sufficient to meet maintained sector requirements.
But there is another potential role for independent schools, as a provider of Free Schools. The Government would welcome - much like the previous administration's courting of HMC schools to set up academies - any independent school who wishes to start a Free School and run it alongside their own existing school. At a recent conference, hosted by IAPS, various speakers set out the ways in which this would be possible. One particular speaker, Dr Anthony Seldon, Headmaster of Wellington College, gave a passionate appeal for prep schools to establish Free Schools or take over failing primaries and establish them as academies. 'I think' he told delegates, 'that every single one of you that represents a school could actually be starting an academy with a primary school.' There was clearly some surprise amongst the audience. 'Give me the name of one of your schools?' he asked. A Head immediately replied: 'Hall Grove'. 'Hall Grove Academy' announced Dr Seldon. 'Just think how children from non-privileged backgrounds would feel about wearing the blazer of Hall Grove - or something close to that - and turning up each morning at Hall Grove Academy?'
Wellington College has established Wellington Academy on a site in Wiltshire. 'There are five reasons why you could all be starting academies named after you', explained Dr Seldon. The first reason he outlined was 'it is a good thing to do and I think we are nothing if we are not moral creatures... to found an academy is a morally good thing to do and therefore requires no further argument or reason for doing it - you will help heal divides in society.' Reason number two, he suggested, was that Heads would 'learn a lot about education'; reason three: 'it would re-energise not just you but your entire school.' The fourth reason 'is that you will find that your parents, your teachers, your governors, your pupils will have enormous new opportunities for contact with each other' and between the respective two schools. His final reason: 'it is very good publicity for your school... you are telling people about a good thing that is happening.'
He also addressed the negative: 'A weasel reason put up by people for not doing this is that your parents won't like it... I have not had a single parent say that to me, out of my 995... they wouldn't dare! Seriously... I think if they felt that the quality of education was being sacrificed then they would. But they don't think that - they think the quality is being enhanced for those children who have already had the benefit of working with academy children, and this is just the very beginning of it. There is no apprehension; there is just a trust that this will be something plus, not something minus.'
Taking over a failing school is without doubt a socially desirable thing to do; beneficial for society as a whole and entirely worthy. But it does come at a cost through the injection of finite time and resources, especially for preparatory schools. The stumbling block is in most cases insurmountable - is it reasonable that parents paying fees at a school should expect the Head and Governors to be entirely focused on the management of that school, and not distracted with the establishment of another? Yes, it is entirely reasonable. This fact has evidently not proved a problem at Wellington College, but one wonders if this would prove the exception, rather than the rule.
IAPS, for their part, are watching the Free Schools debate with interest. Without LEA support, Free Schools will lack professional advice and assistance; organisations like IAPS are in a prime position to help them. David Hanson, Chief Executive of IAPS, told Attain that Free Schools would be very welcome to join the Association: 'Having worked in the maintained sector, academies and independent schools, I know that the biggest challenge is helping newly independent schools to understand what is possible, helping them to make the most of their independence. They have to learn the confidence to accept the responsibility that comes with working without the safety net of an LEA.' The benefits of IAPS membership for Free Schools would be manifold: a kitemark of quality for their school; a continuing professional development programme and courses applicable to all staff; access to consultants, advisers, and a professional network for support; and up-to-date information on the education sector. 'Applications for membership to IAPS by a Free School would be treated like any other', he told Attain. 'Schools would have to meet the membership criteria, which covers areas such as curri-culum, assessment, staffing and governance. Independent schools have the ability to charge fees, but this is not the determining factor of IAPS membership. The key is the quality of education that a school provides. As a guide, we would expect any school making an application to be rated at least good, if not outstanding, by Ofsted.'
But David Hanson was not surprised that the number of applications for converting to an academy was lower than expected: 'The timeline from the election to the first tranche of schools was quite cramped and unless a school had discussed independence before the election and was confident in its ability to complete the process, they are likely to want more time than has been allowed. Some schools may express interest and want to step away from their LEA, but will wait and see how others do first.' As for independent schools moving across to the maintained sector, IAPS is not expecting a rush: 'I predict it will only happen if schools are convinced they will receive true independence.' And that is the fundamental problem for Free Schools as a whole - just how free will they be from the controlling tendency of Whitehall?