Introducing the Free Schools and Academies Panel at the Green Party Conference, Natalie Bennett said Green Party policy was simple: we don't agree with free schools and academies and are in favour of community comprehensive, and local and democratically controlled schools Dr Susanna Wiborg from the Institute of Education spoke about Swedish Free Schools from which Michael Gove derives his model. They have been established for 20 years and are growing quite quickly. They are not just niche schools but a movement spreading rapidly. Why was a social democratic country establishing profit making schools? It was a right wing government that believed that choice was needed.
In the beginning they were seen as way of getting parents involved but actually there was not much interest from parents and there was a move to private providers for profit. In terms of attainment levels, one large research project said pupils did a little better at lower secondary level but this was cancelled out at higher secondary level. There has been discussion about grade inflation accounting for the achievement levels at the lower secondary level and there was a similar pattern in Denmark and Norway. Evidence on comparative cost is not definitive but in some municipalities there are higher costs because of over supply of places due to the free schools and the authority paying for extra spaces in their schools.
Looking for positives, some parents were more involved as they had chosen school at the beginning, and some schools initially were more innovative but now more similar to state schools.
Melissa Benn looked at free schools and academies in broader context of what is happening in English education. It is an exceptional period in terms of the speed and ruthlessness of the 'reform'. The government claimed to be doing it in the name of greater freedom and parents' choice. Free schools get more publicity but academies are more important. Most 'voluntary' conversions were for the additional money not freedoms. Forced academies increasing as a result of the government using the standards agenda for political ends. This produces instability and the government's strategy is changing the life and craft of teachers. They are using the 'enemy of promise' label for an enormous and increasing number of groups including the NAHT, governors and academics. The Canadian ideal is 'reform without rancour. Ours is reform with rancour.
In the UK we set up a divided system post-war and this led to resistance to comprehensivisation. Labour was divided with Blair and Adonis against comprehensives. Benn said her allies on education were in the Green Party rather than the Labour Party. We need to look at the increased segregation caused by academies and free schools and look over the horizon to what we want: less test based, less rote learning, stronger teacher education system, emphasis on the oral and a return to every school having a balanced intake.
Commenting on Green Party policy she said there was a contradiction between locally based schools and having a balanced intake. She emphasised the importance of funding as an issue.
Sue Shanks, Brighton and Hove lead member for Children and Young people said she joined the Green Party because of its education policy. There were no free schools then. She said the problem is that we have a policy against free schools and academies and a Govenment that wants us to have them. She had been accused locally of having principles that get in the way of school place provision. The city had no converter academies and there was no great push from parents for academisation. The DfE were trying to persuade them to have academies and free schools. At present there was no major pressure on school places in comparison with the crisis elsewhere but there were some areas of difficulty. Shanks said there was great concern about the issue in local government. She recognised that the Green Party want more diversity but LA can't decide what free schools to approve. She finished by saying that Brighton and Hove Council were determined to keep the role of the education authority and maintain core services to schools.
Discussion afterwards included some affecting descriptions of the impact of Gove's policies from education practitioners and parents as well as testimony from a former student of an 'outstanding' school whose personal experience was that it may have done well academically but it cared little for pupils' well being.
Contributions were made about the problems faced by pupils with special needs under the current regime as well as some parents rejecting state schools for their children because of the testing regime and narrow curriculum. One core issue was that we have never had fully comprehensive education in this country and another that some schools managed to be creative with a broad curriculum despite the current setup.
I asked what sort of structures we wanted to ensure democratic accountability in the light of increasing numbers of academies and shrinking of local authorities.
Disappointingly, Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT was unable to join the panel.