'Free schools are a vanity project and a reckless waste of public money'

9th March 2015 at 12:01

Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI School in Suffolk, writes: 

I drove in to work this morning listening to Radio 4’s Today programme. I wasn’t quick enough to avoid its regular Thought for the Day segment. But in a way I’m glad. Because straight afterwards education secretary Nicky Morgan came on, trying to defend the proposed expansion of the government’s “free schools” initiative.

From Thought for the Day to Platitude of the Day. Truly, the education secretary left no cliché unturned.

Thus we learned that parents like good schools better than bad ones. We heard that headteachers of free schools feel they are doing a grand job in raising standards locally. We were informed that the myriad other school leaders Ms Morgan encounters in her travels express exuberant delight in the free school policy.

It was as deluded as it was unconvincing. This, apparently, is the government’s flagship education policy. To which we can only respond: some flag. Some ship.

Ms Morgan seemed to acknowledge that she hadn’t read in detail the Policy Exchange report with which today’s policy announcement happily coincides.

Policy Exchange is, of course, a thinktank, and it may be worth reminding ourselves that some eminently more astute commentators than me take a critical view of such organisations.

The authors of the compelling 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, David C Berliner and Gene V Glass, warn us that thinktanks may not be the benign hothouses of intellectual policy fermentation that we might suppose.

Indeed, they write: “These conservative thinktanks are sometimes richly endowed and dedicated to the promulgation of conservative ideology in multiple areas – education, environment, crime, to name only a few. They adopt a tone of scientific inquiry and publish policy briefs and appear in the media. Significant amounts of their budgets are spent on public and media relations.”

Policy Exchange is the political offspring of a much younger Michael Gove. It’s therefore not necessarily the most politically neutral organisation when it comes to government policy.

The publication of its report today is hugely convenient in pronouncing the heartwarming benefits of the 400 free schools opened or announced within this Parliament. The problem is that from where I’m sitting – which is at the back of the sixth-form common room trying to get this written before I go to teach English – the report provides spurious answers to the wrong questions.

For example, it’s hard to see how the success of the current free schools can be trumpeted quite so shrilly and with quite such manufactured authority when we haven’t yet seen their examination results.

So forgive me if the bunting in this patch of Suffolk is remaining firmly in its cardboard box during today’s brief flurry of media attention. Here are three reasons why I’m not joining in the celebration of the free schools expansion.

First, they’re not free. Free schools are paid for with our money. And many of them come at a very high price – converting existing buildings, or deliberately injecting surplus places in the name of a phony kind of competition.

Second, we hear too many stories of working methods that are quite the reverse of the apple-pie partnerships described by the education secretary. We know that the attrition rate of headteachers is high and the rhetoric of teaching quality not always matched by the reality of the available staffing. There are whispers that at some free schools a quiet culling of student numbers between Years 12 and 13 is used to make results look better. There are too many rumours about too many things – and that may be all they are – for us to feel secure that these schools are always the bastions of good practice we were promised.

Third, this really is no way to build a world-class education service. It’s more structural tinkering announced with sick-making bluster. If we want great schools across the whole country, then the process should be planned, not left to the grenade-style randomness of free marketeering.

Which for me is what makes today’s announcement by the education secretary and the prime minister so depressing. It’s as if nothing has been learned from the past four and a half years of educational experimentation.

England’s education system isn’t a laboratory ripe for more madcap wheezes justified by thinktanks and policy nerds. It needs superb schools, teachers and leaders.

The free schools movement promises all these, of course. But you’d be hard-pressed to find many outside the stifling Westminster hothouse who think that spending money like this on vanity projects is anything other than a reckless waste of public money on a policy that – whatever today’s glossy downloadable PDF might have us believe – is untried, untested and almost certainly unwanted.


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