Sunday 12 June 2011

Find out more about Free Schools

Since my post about resisting the seductive elements of free schools there has been widespread interest amongst Green Party activists and others. Here are some links that will be of interest and I publish the NUT's FAQs below.

Parents Alliance for Community Schools LINK which arose out of a campaign against a free school in Hammermith and Fulham
A community campaign in Lambeth ' No to Free Schools'  LINK
The NUT pamphlet on Free Schools LINK
The Local Schools Network supporting a good local community school for every child LINK
The ATL have done some revealing research into the groups behind bids to run academies and free schools. PDF available free LINK

Q: What are free schools?

A: Free schools are a new type of school which the Coalition Government is promoting. The Government’s aim is for the first free schools to open in September 2011.

Free schools will receive state funding but:

·                     are not part of the local authority family of schools and not subject to oversight or inspection by the local authority;

·                     do not have to employ qualified teachers;

·                     do not have to follow the National Curriculum;

·                     can determine their own admissions criteria;

·                     are unlikely to provide the same facilities as other state schools, such as halls, IT suites and outdoor play space because they will be set up in disused buildings such as shops and offices.

·                     can determine their own school day and length of the term and school year;

·                     can set their own pay and conditions for teachers, outside of nationally negotiated agreements.

Q: Who can set up Free Schools?

A: An application to set up a free school can be made by any group of parents, teachers, a not for profit organisation, a charity, faith group, private company or partnership of these.

Q: How are free schools funded?

A: Free schools will be funded directly by central government. Their funding will be based on a per pupil funding level and a pupil premium for disadvantaged pupils. It is obvious that free schools will compete with existing schools for government funding.

Q: How will admissions be organised?

A: Free schools will have to abide by the Admissions Code.  However, research from Sweden shows that more educated parents are most likely to use the free schools as they are based in rich, urban areas.  The West London Free School intends to make Latin compulsory and every child to sit at least eight academic GCSEs or IGCSEs, ensuring there will be a certain amount of self selection. The Battersea and Wandsworth Trade Union Council expressed concern that the free school being set up in Battersea would exclude pupils from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’.  It seems clear that when schools are free from local authority control, admission arrangements can be tweaked to favour more affluent pupils.                                                  

Q: What premises will free schools use?

A: Free schools can set up in any type of building such as disused shops and offices.  The Government has ordered a relaxation of planning laws and building regulations and local planning authorities have been asked to adopt a “positive and constructive” approach towards applications to create new schools. Partnership for Schools, the quango that used to administer the Building Schools for the Future funds to refurbish or rebuild existing state schools, which has been abolished by the coalition Government,  is now helping free school groups identify and buy premises using state funds.

Q: Will free schools have qualified teachers?

A: The Government has said that free schools do not have to employ teachers with Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), apart from the school’s Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator and the member of staff responsible for looked after children (these two positions could be filled by the same person). Even the Head Teacher in a free school does not need to be qualified!  How will free schools raise standards if they do not have to employ teachers who have been properly trained and qualified?

Q: Will ‘Free Schools’ have to follow Teacher’s National Pay and Conditions?

A: No.  Free schools, like academies, can set their own pay and conditions for staff.  It is clear that the Government wants flexibility on staff pay and are encouraging free school heads to pay what they want.  If free schools don’t provide nationally agreed pay and conditions for teachers they won’t be able to attract the best staff.

Q: Will free schools have the same school day and school terms?

A: Free schools can decide on the length of their terms and the school day. So parents with children in different schools may find their school hours and school terms are different. Teachers will be expected to work flexibly. The Chair of the Stour Valley Educational Trust, the first community-led group in England to get formal approval for plans to open a new free school, has said: “People are going to have to teach two subjects and bring something else as well, whether it’s the Duke of Edinburgh award or playing the piano. We’re pushing the boundaries in terms of what teachers are asked to do.”  So not only will free schools be unlikely to have qualified teachers some will also not have subject specialists. This is hardly a recipe for good teaching and learning.

Q: What accountability measures are there?

A: The Government says that all free schools will be accountable via inspections and tests and will be inspected by Ofsted.

However, it is not entirely clear what would happen if a free school was “failing” despite the Government stating that they will not “prop up” failing schools, even free schools.

Free schools are an untried and untested experiment. Do you want the government experimenting on our children?

Q: Are free schools part of the local family of schools?

A: No. free schools are stand alone independent schools. They are not accountable to the local authority even though they receive public money.  Free schools can be set up without the involvement or support of the local authority which makes their role in planning school provision locally more difficult.

Q: Will free schools damage other local schools?

A: Unless free schools are in an area of growing demographic demand they could lead to the closure of existing maintained schools. Even if a local school only loses a small percentage of its students, that could have a damaging effect on its ability to provide a quality education. The ability for local authorities to plan for school places becomes impossible and it is possible that schools may have to close.
Funds for free schools are available because other schemes such as BSF (Building Schools for the Future) and the Harnessing Technology Fund (intended to upgrade classroom technology) have been severely cut or scrapped.  Free schools will also be given a share of the funding the local authority retains to spend on all schools.

Therefore, many services to schools will suffer or no longer be available.

Q: The government says more choice and competition will raise standards – isn’t this true?

A: England already has a diverse schools system. There is no evidence that introducing further choice and diversity will raise standards. It is now almost universally agreed that Finland has the best education in Europe. Its school system reaches the ideal by producing both the highest standards and the best equity. There is no competition at all within the Finnish school system.  Research shows that the priority for policy makers should be improving the quality of teaching. Research also shows that that the choice and diversity agenda exacerbates already existing educational inequalities.

Q: Why do some people say Free Schools could lead to privatisation of education?

A: Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, has said that he has “no ideological objection” to private companies seeking profits from running academies and free schools.  In Sweden, three quarters of free schools are run by profit-making companies. Chains are bidding to run free schools and are lobbying the government to allow them to do so on a profit making basis.
The NUT, the largest teachers’ union, believes the free school policy could mark the end of locally planned and democratically accountable comprehensive education, undermining all the gains made since the 1944 Education Act in widening access for all children to high-quality education.

Q: What does the international evidence on free schools show?

A: The idea of free schools has been borrowed from Sweden which first introduced free schools in the 1990s and the USA which has similar charter schools.

According to the 2009 international education survey, PISA: “Countries that create a more competitive environment in which many schools compete for students do not systematically produce better results.”

The latest edition of Research in Public Policy reviews the evidence on free schools in Sweden and concludes that, “it has not transformed the academic achievement of the country’s pupils.”

Sweden’s decline in educational attainment has been well documented since the educational reforms which introduced free schools.

The Swedish National Agency for Education (equivalent to Ofsted) found that educational attainment showed increasing differences in children’s grades linked to their parents’ educational background.

The CREDO report (Center for Research on Educational Outcomes) published by Stanford University in June 2009 is the first detailed national assessment of US charter school impacts. It covered 16 States and more than 70 per cent of the nation’s students attending charter schools. The research gauged whether students who attended charter schools fared better than if they would have attended a traditional public (state) school.

One of the conclusions was that “there is a wide variance in the quality of the nation’s several thousand charter schools, with, in aggregate, students in charter schools not faring as well as students in traditional public schools.”

Over a third of charter schools (37%) showed academic gains that were worse than their traditional public schools counterparts.  Forty-six per cent of charter schools showed no significant difference.

There are also cases of charter schools operating fraudulently.  A member of the Ohio General Assembly said “As lawmakers we were told that these charter schools would rescue central city children.  Instead these scams diverted scarce public school dollars while leaving almost all urban children behind.”

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