Wednesday, 7 September 2011

How novel are the Free Schools?

This month's opening of 24 free schools has had the media in a permanent state of excitement. And, on the face of it, the DFE has pulled off an impressive feat in seeing so many of the Conservatives' flagships opening so soon after the general election. After all, earlier this year, it seemed like just eight would be ready. However, a closer analysis of the new schools suggests all is not quite what it seems.

17 of the 24 are small primary schools, so comparisons with the early (secondary) academies that replaced failing schools are unworthy and facile, not least as the groundwork for the free schools had already been laid, as we shall see.

In many cases, new primaries would have been needed to respond to demographic changes. And it is good that these will be academies, but they would have been needed anyway.

Of those 24, there are ten that could be described as faith-based. David Blunkett opened the door to new faith schools when - in the face of Tory opposition when they were last in power - he approved the first Muslim schools in 1998, eight months after the general election. Plenty of new faith schools followed. Some became voluntary-aided schools, others foundation schools or academies (which is all in governance terms that 'free schools' are) and it is quite likely that the faith-based schools opening this week could have followed this route.

Then, there are four independent school conversions. Here, there is a direct read across to a policy started by Labour, where schools like Belvedere in Liverpool and Colston Girls in Bristol - more significant independent secondary schools than those opening this week - joined the state sector as academies.

Add to that another group of five schools sponsored by academies, mainly new primaries. Some even use the name 'academy'. To be fair to Gove, he has opened the academies programme to primary schools where Labour had confined primary age academies to the 'all through' route. But this group is simply an extension  of existing brands like Ark and E-Act, as well as an imaginative response to demand by the Cuckoo Hall academy in Edmonton, the first of Gove's primary academies. These are simply additional sponsor-led academies.

Perhaps five - including Toby Young's West London Free School - so far are what might be called parent or teacher-promoted free schools (one is preventing a council closure plan). Here, again, Gove has stripped back the bureaucracy that made it difficult for parent promoters in the past, though several did open under Labour and the rules were changed in their favour from 2006.

These schools are all new academies, as their legislative basis makes clear. What they are not is free schools on the Swedish model, where profit-making companies respond to parental demand, and where there was no tradition of the sort of diversity offered by academies, foundation ands voluntary-aided schools.

But it is in the expansion of sponsor-led academies, both primary and secondary, that the potential for a genuine improvement in standards most lies. DFE says that 45 more opened this week, in disadvantaged areas or replacing failing schools, and a further 49 will open in the New Year. The results from the big academy sponsors this year for academies opened under Labour were remarkable, but have not been properly publicised - many had improvements in excess of ten percentage points this year. This is where the gritty school reforms will continue.

Free schools certainly have a place in the fabric of our education system. They can provide parents with greater options, and it would be wrong simply to confine them to poorer areas. But they should also be linked to improvement in disadvantaged areas. It is right to have ways to enable new faith schools to respond to demand and good independent schools to drop fees and selection. However, the Government should be judged on how it lifts standards across the board, including in once failing schools that have become academies, rather than the number of schools it opens under a new brand name.

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