When free schools falter, let them fall

Avoid our mistakes, advocate for US charter movement advises

England should learn from the mistakes of the US charter school movement and close failing free schools more quickly, a state senator and former education adviser to president Barack Obama has said.

Colorado state senator Mike Johnston - a former teacher and charter school principal - believes that although the US charter school movement has been successful in raising standards, it has not shut down underperforming schools quickly enough.

Schools given greater freedoms should expect tougher accountability and be closed more quickly when they fail because they have had the benefit of "starting from scratch", he said.

"We're starting to learn the mistakes we've made [in the charter school movement]," Mr Johnston told TES ahead of his speech tomorrow at a conference in London hosted by thinktank Policy Exchange. "What we haven't done is follow through enough to say that with more autonomy comes more accountability. We're not going to give [a charter] 10 years to improve like you might give a 100-year-old district school that has gone through some demographic changes.

"We're going to say: `We expect you to perform more quickly and if not we expect you to improve or to close.' That's a fundamental part of the American promise and we really need to do that better if the charter movement is to be more successful."

The performance of free schools in England has recently come under added scrutiny after the decision by the Department for Education to close two of the institutions less than three years after they opened.

Ministers were forced to shut the Discovery New School in West Sussex in April owing to concerns over standards, while secondary provision at Al-Madinah School in Derby will finish at the end of this term because of the quality of teaching.

So far, Ofsted has published inspection reports on 50 free schools, which have revealed a mixed record of success. More than a third have been judged not good enough by the watchdog - higher than the national average - but a higher-than-average proportion have also been judged outstanding.

Further free school closures would be hugely damaging politically for education secretary Michael Gove. So far, 10 per cent of free schools inspected have been placed in "special measures" - the lowest Ofsted category - compared with just 3 per cent of state-maintained schools.

Natalie Evans, director of the New Schools Network, a charity set up to help groups open free schools, believes they should not be judged any differently from other state schools. "Free schools were created to raise standards so should be held to the highest possible standards," Ms Evans said. "However, this doesn't mean they should be treated as special cases.

"Ofsted reporting already shows us that free schools are significantly more likely to be judged outstanding than other state schools and, in the less than 2 per cent of cases where there have been issues, action has been taken swiftly. This contrasts starkly with over 100 council-run schools that have been left to languish in special measures for over a year. Allowing underperforming schools of any type to drift is unacceptable."

Mark Lehain, principal of Bedford Free School, which was judged as "requiring improvement" in February, said that although schools like his had advantages, they also faced the distinct challenges of getting off the ground. "My instinct is that different schools should not be treated differently, as they are all part of the same family of state schools," Mr Lehain said.

But he added: "Having said that, I think it was right that the Department for Education moved as quickly as it did when it closed down free schools. It is important to remember the children should always come first."

Exchange of views

Senator Mike Johnston was speaking ahead of the Policy Exchange conference being held in London tomorrow, in partnership with TES.

As next year's general election looms, the event will pose the question "What should the political parties promise on education in 2015?"

Education secretary Michael Gove and the Labour Party's education spokesman Tristram Hunt will also be speaking. The conference will be streamed live at news.tesconnect.com

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