Free Schools – Liberty or Libertarian?


Today (20th October), Nick Clegg stood aside from Michael Gove (and David Laws) in seeking to ensure that teachers in Free Schools are properly trained (to QTS standards), that there is an educational centre based on the national curriculum and that all students should have access to good meals at school.

The basic trend of this government is to free up schools from the central doctrines of Local authority rules and requirements whilst ensuring that they remain financed by the centre. This is one aspect of Michael Gove’s belief in free “choice” – which is commendable in principle but hits at least three snags: people in communities do not want to have a variety of bad choices; there are too many issues at stake for lay-people (no matter how capable and well-meaning) to adequately assess all the issues before making a choice;   choice requires a real sense of competition and access to that competitive environment and a real market.

There is in England a Brave New World of Education where the division is between the alpha model of private education, the beta model of good state schools and the epsilon model of all the rest. The advent of Free Schools is meant to blow away the model so that where problems exist in a location, excellence is developed through the ability of the market and hard-working people – untrammeled by centralist doctrine. Supporters of this market-notion state that the disasters of the Bradford Free School – Al-Madinah – show that the market works – that bad schools will be outed and forced to improve or close.

Choice in Education

The ability to choose rests upon an assumption that those with a choice will receive their preferred choice.  In a parliamentary report from 2010, it was estimated that 85% of those in the secondary school state system received their first choice, but this obscured the much lower rate in cities.

Of course, choice is only as good as what is offered and this is critical. Real choice would enable those choosing to be able to select the right school that will enable the student to gain real value and advantage in his / her education. That means the provision of a school of a good standard. Choice in many areas obscures the fact that those making the choice have to select the “best on offer” – all may be well below the required standard that they would “choose” if they had the chance.

This is why there are efforts to raise standards across the board in the hope that all will, eventually, have a choice that contains better schools – those of a sufficiently high standard to satisfy all the requirements.

In this feverish search for choice and raised standards (and we all welcome a considered drive to improve), choice has been thrust forward as a key reason behind Free Schools.

Freedom from Local Authorities

With the advent of Academies, schools (especially secondary state schools) are progressively moving out of the local authority sphere of influence. Cut-backs in the latter mean that their central education capabilities have been curtailed and the drive for a more centralized control by the Ministry of Education continues – while purporting to be a drive for more local control by each school.

For many schools, this freedom is positive. Local authorities are hugely variable in capability, ingenuity and innovation – as well as funding. This meant that, in many areas, schools were held back and can now progress untrammeled by local authority (often “political”) involvement.

However, this freedom also means that Academies, while having to adhere to national Admission rules, do not have to co-ordinate admissions with the local authority. The impact of this is yet to be determined.

Progressive Freedom

Academies have substantial powers over teacher pay and curriculum in many areas but Free Schools (based mainly on local demand requirements in a range of areas – including Faith) are not beholden to the national curriculum nor the requirement to select teachers based on existing training norms. In addition, the debate about local “need” may also strain credulity. Faith schools, for example, are the first in line on this basis but the desire of those to provide faith schools may not be in line with those locally who may oppose this. Unlike planning permission, the process is more about the desire of those in favour than reaching a local conclusion based on what makes sense for the local community as a whole. The school as a local community hub (so important with the demise of the Church) is now forgotten in the search for market results.

Nick Clegg’s intervention may not go far enough and seems to typify those who find fault with the Gove vision. That vision is about freedom and choice but is not sufficiently strong in its understanding of what is needed in the local community. Local authorities purported in the past to have this responsibility but failed in many cases to carry out that remit. So, just like Margaret Thatcher’s response in London (to abolish the GLC), where possible local remits are abolished and individual schools set up – with progressively more independence.

This disruption, between local authority or central government, between local (often bad) control and school independence, means that local areas may lose the chance to have a substantial uplift in education capability because individual schools are now encouraged to go it alone. Without some understanding of overall local need, the progressive freedoms of the market (in a confused market economy like education) will throw up abnormal results – often by chance. Economics is not strong on education.

The ability of individual schools (often under pressure from Boards) may not be high. The ability of many Free Schools to chose teachers not based on rigorous teacher training standards is also dubious.

Choice of what?

Michael Gove hopefully has learned a lot in the last ten years. When he was in opposition, I personally asked him for his views on whether there was scope for schools to benefit from better procurement and management of IT through some association or collaboration of state schools. Over 3,000 secondary schools typically pursued their own aims and ambitions in this area. Recruitment is tough in this sector as salaries are not competitive for strong IT staff. Imagine a company with 3,000 subsidiaries all being allowed to go their own way!

Gove’s written response to me was interesting. His view was that individual schools should stand on their own feet and that, if they had poor IT, parents would exercise choice and not send their children to such schools.

This outlined to me Gove’s prioritization and focus on choice. It puts too much weight on parent’s assumed knowledge of even backroom systems like IT – which almost no parents would investigate. It suggests that perfect information is not just available but understandable and assessable. This seemed to be a nonsensical response at the time but seems to underlie much of Conservative thinking about so-called “choice”. We should be ensuring that all schools have great IT – a fundamental requirement in the modern, high-tech working society – not allowing any to fall by the wayside. This should not be about allowing schools to fail – but, ensuring they all succeed: not sink or swim, but ensure they can swim.

Parental choice has to be reasoned choice that makes sense to parents. Each area may have different needs. In some, there may be great schools but a requirement to spend £500,000 on a house to get into one; in other areas, there may be one excellent school that attracts the best students and the rest are allowed to wallow in mediocrity at best; in other areas, grammar schools may dominate; in other areas, reduced capital investment may not attract good staff – the list goes on and no two areas are the same.

Choice is what is highlighted each time a Free School comes before local people. It is, in itself, meaningless because no-one really understands it. Choice of what is less a real choice than a funding decision as a Free School may be the only way to acquire the funds locally to do something of real value.

So, Nick Clegg is on the right lines in trying to firm up key elements of Free Schools but there is more to do. Liberals (or anyone that shares a desire to benefit local communities) need to bring in some form of assessment that enables local people to gauge their options. In addition to the assessment of individual schools and our focus on league tables, parents have to acquire information on the local area’s overall education capabilities (not the Borough itself) into which Free Schools, Academies, Private education and other schools exist.

This is not a call for local authorities to get back its old powers, but for educational assessment that enables citizens to acquire immediate information on their local areas (their catchment area) and for decision-makers (often central government) to actively show that they have not just taken these assessments into account but are actively pursuing change in areas of real priority.

This way, choice allied to progressive and continuous overall improvement can be parsed into the local framework and maybe enable real decisions to take place: localism that means something rather than a free-for-all.

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