Free Schools

So sometime after my last post (all right a long time) I have been moved to post again. Michael Gove’s policy to ‘reform’ the state school system has made me write again because I am really angry about it.

First a bit of background about me, before taking voluntary redundancy earlier this year I worked for a company that delivered services to 1000’s of schools and I was even involved in Building Schools for the Future (BSF). So I know some of the limitations of the current system and have experienced the frustrating level of bureaucracy of BSF.  None of this convinces me that Free Schools is the answer.

Gove believes that Free Schools will improve education because of the freedoms they will be given, these include:

  • the ability to set their own pay and conditions for staff
  • greater control of their budget
  • freedom from following the National Curriculum
  • freedom to change the length of terms and school days
  • freedom from local authority control.

Apart from the last point, which I will discuss later, I have some sympathy for these ideas.  However, why do schools need to be reorganised and taken outside LA control for a lot of this to happen? The answer is they don’t really.  Although pay and conditions is more difficult to vary I would be happy to sacrifice this anyway, much better that teachers want to be at a school because of it’s high standards.  There is scope to provide discretionary payments which could attract teachers to failing or difficult schools (details can be found in section 5 of NUT guidance on teachers pay structure nb they oppose such payments).  I know from work with different LA’s that some provide a great deal more freedom than others already and the National Curriculum could be changed by the Government.

To quote from his press release,

“The most important element of a great education is the quality of teaching and Free Schools will enable excellent teachers to create new schools and improve standards for all children.”

If the most important thing is the quality of teaching then that is what government should be concentrating on.  Instead they have decided that the most important thing is the governance structure of the school system and how much freedom they have.

So now onto what is wrong with taking Local Authorities (LAs) Currently Local Authorities have a legal duty under the 1996 Education Act to provide primary and secondary education. So understandably they seek to ensure that this duty is discharged by putting in place systems and processes to support, manage and monitor the schools in their area.  This requires a certain amount of bureaucracy and does mean that schools are not completely independent, except for academies and foundations schools but these are basically free schools anyway.

Now I am happy to debate (I am not going to do that right now however mainly because debating with myself would be a worrying trend for someone who is unemployed and on my own in the house a fair bit) how good LAs are at the management of schools and whether there is too much bureaucracy and/or control.  From first hand experience I know there is scope for cost savings and there are a number of areas where schools could be given more control.

However as things stand I believe there are significant advantages to ensuring that schools remaining under LA control. these are listed below but they are subjective and based on my experience.

  • Access to professional advice and support on an impartial basis
  • Buying power and financial back up of large organisation
  • Economies of scale and ability to pool resources
  • Resources to help build and maintain networks

For a practical explanation of what this means imagine that the roof of a school fails one year. Unless they are very lucky they won’t have enough money to replace it. It is more likely that the LA will be able to find a way of funding it and actually they have a duty to provide education as explained below.

But the biggest advantage to having schools under some form of LA control is that ultimately elected politicians are responsible for what the LA does. So as a concerned citizen I can can use the democratic system and ultimately register my dissatisfaction by not voting for them. If a free school opened down the road and started teaching or doing things the local population were unhappy with (There have been examples of Academies being sponsored by religious fundamentalists and I fear the same will happen with free schools) what could we do about it?

Who could I hold to account for what happens at the school and how could changes be made? Protesting to my local council and MP is difficult but possible and local pressure groups can make a difference. What are the options with free schools, getting a group of parents together to open our own school if we don’t like the other one is going to be too difficult for the vast majority of people as well as diverting resources unnecessarily.

These changes are not required, they are distracting us from the real issues and are an ideological experiment.

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