Free school founders and newly-weds face the same pitfall - being blind to the problems that lie ahead

29th April 2011 at 01:00
The question is simple: if 90 per cent of businesses and 50 per cent of marriages fail, why should free schools be any more successful?

The question is simple: if 90 per cent of businesses and 50 per cent of marriages fail, why should free schools be any more successful? The latest evidence from the US suggests they probably won't. Although free school supporters point to the successes of their US counterparts, even the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools admitted in 2009 that one-third of US "free schools" remained inadequate. Despite this, the Government here has received 323 free-school applications and, despite perpetually high divorce rates, in 2010 nearly half-a-million people in Britain tied the knot.

My internal optimist is heartened that two-thirds of charter schools provide a good education and that 50 per cent of marriages are sustained. This begs the question, what are the differences between those failing and those succeeding?

Surprisingly, the reasons schools fail are similar to the reasons marriages fail. The late Seymour Sarason, an American academic, spent 25 years studying both professional and personal partnerships to determine what contributes to their long-term success or early termination. I have outlined many of Sarason's findings in my book, The Six Predictable Failures of Free School . and how to avoid them, written to help free- school founders avoid the failures he discovered.

In short, most new partnerships fail because an illusion of superiority blinds their creators to the difficulty of the challenges ahead. In both marriage and free-school applications people believe "failure won't happen to us because we really want this and we're willing to work hard at it", while the failure of other schools is seen as a product of lacklustre commitment and incompetence. Believing that enthusiasm and a shared goal are all that is required, couples predictably fail to discuss what percentage of their joint income should be saved, or ignore simmering conflicts in career goals. Likewise, school founders often focus their enthusiasm towards creating an ethos or uniform, while forgetting to do the "boring things" such as hiring dinner ladies or ordering marker pens. When such inadequacies are pointed out, the usual reply is: "We'll worry about that later."

Unfortunately, newly-weds and school founders are at the mercy of two psychological tricks brains we employ to protect us from uncertainty. First is the illusion of "false uniqueness". Humans consistently self- report as "better than average" at most skills - including driving and leading a team - even when there is no evidence to support their view. Second, we overrate our capacity to achieve in the future. Hence, "to-do" lists often grow indefinitely, as we believe that tomorrow we will magically be more capable than we are today.

Such trust in our future capacities means it is easy for school leaders to "forget" mistakes they made in previous jobs failing to plan for their obvious recurrence. Meanwhile, the sense of false uniqueness leads to the belief that they will do a better job than other similar school leaders, simply by virtue of "being me".

Sarason found a startling number of new school founders were so unaware of what creating a new school required and were so insistent that enthusiasm would see them through that they failed to plan adequately to overcome difficulties plaguing other schools, such as finding suitable property or hiring quality teachers.

A further problem of illusory superiority is the negative reaction it draws from others. Dinner invites soon dry up for newly married couples who wax lyrical about their perfect relationship. Similarly, school leaders who constantly tout their "betterness" risk isolation and hostility from others in the community who feel they are being criticised by a school seeking to "steal" their students.

Free-school founders may be even more strongly lured into a sense of false uniqueness by the application form's requirement to describe the school's "distinctive vision and ethos". Once committed to paper, schools struggle to live up to the promise of a distinctive experience they do not have the resources to deliver. Sarason noted this tendency among the initial wave of US charter schools: "If anything is common in the applications for charter status it is the explicit emphasis on the individual attention that will be given to students". But schools failed to budget for students presenting unique learning needs, meaning angry parents complained bitterly. This harmed the schools' reputations, demotivated staff and affected achievement.

Thankfully, once we are aware of the problems illusory superiority leads to we can also circumnavigate them. For the book, I investigated how free- school applicants could avoid veering into this belief. I suggest that free-school applicants read the Ofsted reports of local schools and decide how they would solve the problems those schools are struggling to resolve. They should not imagine those issues will not affect them; chances are, they will. If the new school is promising to deal more effectively with issues, they must decide - before opening - how this will be achieved. It cannot "wait until later" and it cannot be done through a vague notion of "culture". People want to know what will be done, by whom and with what resources. If applicants cannot answer these questions, they are sleep- walking their school into predictable failure.

In the past few months, I have conversed with free-school founders and newly engaged couples alike. In the end, Sarason's advice to both is the same - your chances of failure are the same as everyone else's unless you take steps to ensure you are clear about your goals and equally clear about how you will deal with obstacles. If free schools succeed, they will only do so if founders realise what they are up against and plan accordingly. Am I optimistic that success is possible? I must be. I got married in February.

Laura McInerney is policy development partner at LKM Consulting and author of The Six Predictable Failures of Free Schools . and how to avoid them.

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