Ka-ching! Free-school cash could bring elites into town

Analysis Critics claim cash-strapped independents are eyeing up free-school status as a means of winning state funding on the sly. But is the private sector really clamouring to jump aboard the education secretary's reform express? Irena Barker reports

Irena Barker

Since education secretary Michael Gove's "schools revolution" was enshrined in law this summer, critics have warned that his plans for taxpayer-funded "free schools" set up by parents, teachers and other groups would be hijacked by private schools in financial straits. It would be a piece of cake, they claimed, for weak proprietorial preps to apply for state cash to boost their pupil intake during the recession.

Former education secretary Ed Balls said the plans would amount to "a private-school subsidy for a few, paid for by everybody else". He didn't mention the six private schools which, under Labour, converted to academy status, some of which were clearly driven by a desire to boost falling rolls.

So far, though, the interest in free-school status in the private sector has largely come from small faith and other niche schools, many of whom say they have never wanted to charge fees anyway. Seventeen private schools showed an interest in academy or free-school status last summer.

Three well-established Steiner schools - in Totnes, Lancaster and Cambridge - have already submitted applications. If successful, they will follow in the footsteps of one in Hereford, which became a state-funded academy under Labour two years ago. The Steiner schools also insist they are driven by the desire to be able to give more children their unique brand of education.

Only one or two private schools have admitted they need free-school status and funding to be able to survive.

At the Sarah Bartholomew School near Frodsham in Cheshire, owner and principal Catherine O'Donovan admits that the school, which has just five pupils, is struggling. She attributes her plight to the recession. State funding, she says, will mean she can boost her school to three classes of 10 pupils - the building's capacity.

Ms O'Donovan set up the school in 1988 after a stressful period teaching classes of around 40 pupils in state schools. The aim of the project, she says, was to provide a local school for the village of Dunham on the Hill and allow teachers more time with pupils in small classes.

One of the prime concerns for private schools seeking free-school status is whether they will retain their independence; another is the requirement to give up selective admissions policies. In addition, schools have not been told what their funding levels will be.

Mike Rose, trustee of the Cambridge Steiner School, says: "There could be a massive rush of people wanting to come to the school. How we will manage that, I don't know.

"The only thing we've got to go on is the Steiner Academy Hereford, where it became a problem because they weren't expecting that level of interest. There were lots of protests from parents who couldn't get their children in and they handed the admissions over to the local authority," he says.

The Department for Education is unable to supply figures on how many private schools have applied to become free schools, claiming that its focus is currently on "outstanding schools becoming academies". Private schools will no longer be able to apply through the academy route.

The New Schools Network, the charity charged with guiding free-school applicants, was also silent on how many existing private schools it had advised, perhaps aware of the controversy around providing state cash to independents.

But despite these examples, key figures in private education do not believe that the free-schools revolution will be embraced by existing schools in the private sector. "The vast majority of schools are unlikely to want to either become a free school or set one up," says David Hanson, chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools. Schools wanting to push their educational "mission" and "ethos" are more likely to offer their services to those in disadvantaged areas by sponsoring an academy, he adds.

Mr Hanson says he does not feel that there is a particular need for free schools. He favours what amounts to a means-tested voucher system, which he believes will allow parents more choice by being able to buy private-school places for their children. "However, free schools might be very, very useful in setting us on a path towards more synergies between the sectors," he adds.

Despite this, he says the shadow of Conservative history may make it harder for the Government to increase beneficial interplay between private and state schools. "The danger is it may not be easier; the Tories may be cautious about being seen to be too close to the private sector," he says. "I hope the coalition Government is courageous and makes the right decisions, and does not feel hide-bound by Conservative history.

"Surveys have shown even half of parents who are Labour voters would put their children in a private school if they could afford it," he adds.

Likewise, David Levin, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents top independents, has doubts about what free schools can achieve. "If you're going to have a market in state-school education, you will have surplus places to allow some schools to grow and some to contract," he says. "In these times of cuts, I don't think the money will be there for these schools to have the small class sizes that the people setting them up want. I don't know how they can square that particular circle."

Mr Levin adds that during times of recession, most private schools have enough on their plates to worry about sponsoring academies or setting up state-funded off-shoots. "If requested, they might help schools improve in deprived areas, but I can't see this becoming a mass movement," he says.

Dr Anthony Seldon, head of the prestigious Wellington College in Berkshire, is a keen enthusiast, and his school now sponsors the state-funded Wellington Academy in Wiltshire. But his pleas for his colleagues to do the same have fallen on largely deaf ears: only two have followed suit by becoming full sponsors.

Gillian Low, president of the Girls' Schools Association, also insists there is not yet any clamour from her members to get involved in Mr Gove's revolution, although heads had "no big moral objection to the idea".

So it remains to be seen to what extent individual private schools will embrace the different opportunities thrown up by the expected free-schools and academies "boom". However, it is most likely to be the private sector in general - including school chains such as Cognita and Gems - which will express an interest in running brand-new free schools.

Gems has long indicated that it would be interested in working with parent groups to help them to set up schools, although no projects have yet been confirmed. Cognita, the chain set up by former chief schools inspector Chris Woodhead, is already known for providing private education on a budget, and it would be a natural private-sector partner for groups wanting to set up free schools.

There has been staunch opposition from the unions and the Left on the issue of private companies taking public money to run state schools. However, it is still uncertain whether these companies, along with others such as Edison Learning and the Swedish chain Kunskapsskolan, will find this potentially bureaucratic world a genuinely profitable sector in which to work.

Commentary - Free-schools recipe won't cook up success

James Tooley

To explore the impact of the free-schools policy on the independent sector, you have to distinguish two types of independent school. First are the non-profits like Eton, Winchester and Harrow, and other, lesser-known schools run as charities or trusts.

Many are part of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which was urged in 2007 by then schools minister Lord Adonis to share its "educational DNA" with state schools. Michael Gove repeated the exhortation when he took office as eduation secretary. These non-profit schools will no doubt get involved in the free-schools policy, sharing their DNA in little ways like advising on uniform and behaviour or instilling an academic ethos.

But this will not set anyone's pulse racing. The more exciting possibilities come from the second kind of independent school, the for-profits. There is a whole range of these, too, from small schools run as sole proprietorships to school chains run by Gems, Cognita, Kunskapsskolan and Sabis.

Schools run for profit will always be interested in expanding their market share. They will want to bring in new customers - parents and children - and exert greater influence. The free-schools policy will encourage these players to enter hitherto undeveloped markets - for deprived inner-city children, for instance - based on models that have proven successful elsewhere. Such interventions have the potential to improve what is offered to children in deprived areas by bringing in the kinds of innovation and investment that only the for-profit private sector can muster.

But will it work as dramatically as its Government proponents claim? Sometimes I look wistfully at India, China and Africa, where "free" schools - genuinely free of government intervention - are burgeoning, meeting the needs of the poorest far better than any Government schools could. But their success depends on parents paying fees - tiny fees to be sure, but enough to keep the schools on their toes. The problem with the free-schools policy is that, ultimately, the schools are not accountable to parents, but to their paymaster, the Government. And that, I'm afraid, is not the recipe to make free schools into great schools.

James Tooley is professor of education policy at Newcastle University

Public benefit test - Judicial review will clarify terms

Before May's general election, the independent sector anticipated that a future Conservative government would adopt a more "hands-off" approach to private schools than its predecessor.

Indeed, the coalition Government has now signalled its intention to resolve the emotive issue of the public benefit test, which determines whether a school can be judged a charity. Attorney general Dominic Grieve has asked the courts to examine how the test guidance should be interpreted.

The Independent Schools Council, which previously won a judicial review of the issue, has argued that the public benefit test should not be based on the provision of bursaries alone.

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Irena Barker

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist.

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