From The Editor - Perfect lodgers or cuckoos in the nest?

16th November 2012 at 00:00

Few government initiatives have inspired as much ideological passion as free schools. Supporters claim they are nimble responses to parental demand; opponents fear they are subversive interlopers that disrupt local provision and pander to all manner of undesirables - creationists, traditionalists, even DJs.

Recently, however, free school evangelists have become frustrated with an unlikely party - the Department for Education. It is, they say, too timid in its ambitions and too slow to provide facilities to meet demand (pages 14-15 and 46-47). The lack of suitable sites can only be addressed, they argue, if ministers allow free schools to share the buildings of poorly performing schools that have spare capacity because parents are unwilling to send their kids to them.

The practice is common in the US, where charter schools are berthed cheek by jowl with undersubscribed ones. This cuckoo-like arrangement, according to research, not only solves an accommodation problem for charters, it also improves the performance of the original inhabitants, which raise their game when forced to work alongside the upwardly mobile lodgers.

Whatever the marginal benefit to exam scores, this seems an invidious and rather brutal approach. American tales of barely suppressed hostilities between two tribes forced to cohabit are not uncommon. Do we really want battles between sullen incumbents and thrusting arrivistes over who gets to use the photocopier or playground? It's more the stuff of bad reality television than sound education policy. If a school is that bad, surely it would be kinder to close it than to force it to limp on in semi-detached shame?

In any case, many local authorities will have a hard time sympathising with frustrated free schools. On the contrary, they are appalled that too many have been allowed to open as it is, especially when they are parachuted into areas with plenty of places in perfectly good schools. Even where there is a lack of provision, acceptance can be grudging. Free schools suspect, not without reason, that they will always be an affront to ordered municipal minds.

The government doesn't trust local authorities to allow free schools to flourish either, so it has stopped them from building new ones and outsourced provision to free schools or academies. Unfortunately, that means referring everything for approval back to Whitehall, which is buckling under the strain of planning for the extra 450,000 pupil places needed in the next three years.

What can be done? The obvious solution is for both sides to bend a bit. Sceptical councils should accept that most free schools are not instruments of the devil but genuine expressions of unmet, grass-roots demand that they would do well to embrace. And Whitehall should acknowledge that councils usually know their own neighbourhoods better than it does and allow them to commission and plan accordingly.

Sadly, the chances of that happening are about as great as Nadine Dorries going on a long, silent retreat to a nunnery. Free schools will continue to feel frustrated, councils will fume in impotence, not enough schools will open and a government flagship programme designed to free up the system will succeed only in clogging it up. Constipation looks rather more likely than liberation.

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