Monthly Archives: May 2011

WHAT DOES ANDY BURNHAM SAY ABOUT FREE SCHOOLS?

WHAT DOES ANDY BURNHAM SAY ABOUT FREE SCHOOLS?

Wants Free Schools to demonstrate that they benefit all children in the local area ,not just those that attend the Free School

Comment

Andy Burnham, the Shadow Education Secretary, has been careful not to say that should Labour win the next election it would abolish Free Schools.

He said in a recent speech at an Education Conference on 17 May that “We are not against people who are trying to set up their own schools. And in the future, if a school was up and running successfully and making a positive input to the local community, a Labour Government would not close it simply because it was a Free School. Of course not. But what matters in deciding about any new parent-promoted schools is the contribution a new school makes to improving standards for all children.  That’s why local areas should judge whether each school plans to operate in the wider interests of all children in the area, not just those that attend the school.  My test will be clear – we should look not just at the results in the individual school but at the effect on results in the wider family of schools.”  Burnham had told the ASCL conference earlier this year, that he had made it clear that  “free schools must be judged by local areas on the merits of each proposal.”  Peter Hyman, a labour party member and former aide to Tony Blair, was singled out by Burnham as having the right approach to Free Schools. He is establishing a Free School in Newham. Burnham notes that his proposals “are comprehensive, committed to fair admissions, and have the full backing of their local area. “ This has prompted some critics to suggest that he favours Free Schools providing, that is, they are set up by Labour supporters. He has criticised Toby Youngs West London Free School bid.  Last December he said to the Guardian: “What I’d tell the Toby Youngs of this world is that your choice, well-intentioned as it might be … can undermine someone else’s options and choice.” With a number of influential Labour party members supporting Free Schools but with most union leaders opposed Burnham clearly has to steer a delicate course, seeking to satisfy two very different constituencies. So, he has a bit of a challenge on his hands.

Burnham says he will “judge every education policy on two clear tests – does it help every school to be a good school and every child to be the best they can be. That is why I say that by pursuing the free schools programme in the way that they are, the government has a plan for some schools and some children but not all schools and all children. “  Burnham’s main concern seems to be that Free Schools are not targeted at the most disadvantage pupils, in the most disadvantaged areas. Indeed he claims just 2 of the 26 schools approved so far are in the 10 most deprived communities.  So, he concludes, taking into account also the new Academies scheme (which encourages good schools too to become Academies) that while spending on schools overall is falling, funding is now ,as a result of this policy, being diverted from areas of educational disadvantage to wealthier areas.

About 10 Free Schools are expected to open this September. To date 40 FS proposals have been approved by the Secretary of State  to proceed to business case and plan stage or beyond.

.http://andyburnhammp.blogspot.com/2011/05/speech-to-education-2011-conference.html

KIPP NOT FOR PROFIT CHARTER MODEL- BENEFITS FROM PRIVATE FUNDING

KIPP charter model

New study says KIPP benefits from considerable private funding

Comment

The Knowledge Is Power Program, a not for profit US  charter school network,  much admired by the Coalition Government,  and known for lifting the achievements of poor children through high standards and long hours of work, benefits, according to a new study from significant private funding and has relatively high student attrition.

The study from researchers at Western Michigan University, estimates that KIPP schools receive more than $5,000 a year per pupil through private donations in addition to regular sources of public funding. During the 2007-08 school year, KIPP received more per pupil in combined revenue ($12,731 per student) than any other comparison group: the national average for all schools ($11,937), the national charter average ($9,579), or the average for KIPP schools’ local school districts ($11,960).  KIPP received more in per-pupil revenue from federal sources ($1,779) than did any other comparison group: the national average ($922), the national charter district average ($949), or KIPP schools’ host districts ($1,332).It also found that about 15 percent of KIPP students leave the schools each year as they progress from sixth to eighth grades — and that those students often are not replaced. KIPP schools have substantially higher levels of attrition than do their local school districts according to the study. The analysis revealed that on, average, approximately 15% of the students disappear from the KIPP grade cohorts each year.   Between grades 6 and 8, the size of the KIPP grade cohorts drop by 30%. The actual attrition rate is likely to be higher since some of the KIPP schools do fill in some of the vacated places after grade 6.  Gary Miron, the study’s author, said KIPP schools in Washington and elsewhere often outperform regular public schools. “But they’re not doing it with the same students, and they’re not doing it with the same dollars,” he claimed. KIPP officials  were dismissive saying  that the study was riddled with errors because of flaws in the data that were analyzed. “The questions they ask are the right ones,” said KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini. “We reject their conclusions.”  With 99 schools serving about 27,000 students, mostly from middle schools, KIPP is one of the nation’s most closely watched experiments in urban school reform. Typically, its students are in school nine hours a day. They also attend school many Saturdays and for two to three weeks in the summer. Philanthropists and federal officials often hold KIPP up as a model, because it gets strong results from disadvantaged students.  Mancini said KIPP estimates that its schools receive $2,250 to $3,250 a year per student in private funding, excluding capital funds. He said that KIPP does not seek to weed out students, citing a 2010 study by Mathematica Policy Research, which found that KIPP schools do not, on the whole, have higher attrition than comparable public schools.  However, KIPP officials acknowledge that their schools tend to have a lower share of students with disabilities or who are not fluent in English, relative to neighbouring schools. The research concludes that ‘…that because of selective entry and exit  of students and the higher levels of funding received by KIPP this model may not be easily replicated in  traditional public schools.’ A point that has been picked up by Professor Dylan Wiliam. He accepts that while the KIPP model is sound for hard working children, it did not improve attainment across the system as a whole.

 

http://www.wmich.edu/leadership/emo/docs/KIPP_study.pdf

ACADEMIES REGULATION

ACADEMIES –AND REGULATION

Need to ensure that autonomous schools are accountable

Comment

In January, this year, the Commons Public Accounts committee  found that academies, the independent state schools that are central to this Governments education  reforms,  have improved pupils’ educational achievements and life chances in some of the most deprived communities in the country. Around 17% of state secondary schools are academies and the government has made no secret of the fact that by the time of the next election it would like half of all secondary schools to be academies.  This certainly seems possible at the current pace of conversion.A study by Stephen Machin and James Vernoit at the London School of Economics found  that academy status tends to raise pupil performance and improves the performance of neighbouring schools. The Government takes some pride  in what it sees as the academy success story. But the rapid expansion of the scheme raises other important accountability issues that were picked up by the PAC.   Many academies, it found, have inadequate financial controls and governance to assure the proper use of public money. It said that the DfE and YPLA have not been sufficiently rigorous in requiring compliance with guidance. It added that it  should be made  compulsory for all academies – sponsored and converter – to comply with basic standards of governance and financial management. This should include ‘segregation of key roles and responsibilities, and timely submission of annual accounts.’  It added that  ‘as the Programme expands, there are increased risks to value for money and proper use of public money’ so ‘ the  Department needs to develop sufficient capacity and adequate arrangements to provide robust accountability and oversight of academies’ use of public funds.’ Until very recently Academies were not subject to the Freedom of Information Act which was an absurd anomaly, given the amount of taxpayers money  tied up in these schools.(The SSAT quango which supports Academies is  still not subject to the FOIA-work that one out)

What is clear is that while Academies appear to be performing relatively well against   educational benchmarks (although some  have complained including the Civitas think tank  that there has not been full transparency over what exams their pupils sit) the pace and scope of Government reforms leaves it open to criticism that the administrative and regulatory tail is playing  catch up. The  proposed  abolition of the YPLA which has responsibility for Academies may serve to complicate accountability issues.  Part of the attraction of setting up these schools is that they are autonomous and because they are freed from local authority control they have less bureaucracy and red tape to contend with, which is seen as a real positive. But some are concerned that the regulatory framework within which these autonomous schools sit is not robust enough. Policymakers have tended to focus on the imperative of  freedom of choice rather than the regulatory implications of supply side reforms  and in working out how to put in place an enabling environment that  safeguards the public interest  and  minimises the chances of these  new schools failing  and indeed ensuring  that  a system is  in place to manage  failure and its consequences. The Government has recently tightened up the vetting of Free Schools bids which suggests that  it has its own concerns.  The challenge of course is to strike the right balance between real autonomy and accountability to the Government.

Other countries have introduced supply side reforms, including autonomous state schools and there may be lessons that we can learn from their experiences.  CfBT Education Trust has been investigating  international practice in the area of school reforms and will be publishing a report this summer. The timing could not be better. Watch this space.

THE EBACC IS NOT AN ACCOUNTABILITY MEASURE-APPARENTLY

The EBACC

Is it an accountability measure? Apparently not

Comment

Lord Hill of Oareford ,an Education Minister, said very clearly in the Lords, on 24 May, when replying to a question on the Ebacc, (some are concerned that Religious Studies are not included in Ebacc) that it was not a performance or accountability measure. He said “.. the EBacc is to provide information. It is not a performance or accountability measure. We use the same measure as we inherited from the previous Government-that is, five A to C GCSEs. The point of the EBacc, alongside other measures, is to try to provide more information.”

Lords Oral PQ 24 May 2011

Note; The government introduced the Ebacc to encourage breadth of achievement across a range of  academic subjects at GCSE. The  ‘English Baccalaureate’ is awarded to pupils gaining good GCSEs in English, maths, science, languages and history or geography .  Only 15 per cent of pupils nationally currently reach this standard (and Academies fare particularly badly).  Some Heads objected to the retrospective nature of the measure.  Quite a few  organisations are lobbying   the government to allow for the inclusion of Religious Studies, Classical Civilisation and English Literature in the “humanities” category.  There are also concerns that Music and the creative arts may be sidelined as schools, whatever Ministers might say, perceive the Ebacc as a performance measure.

A NEW ALL AGE CAREERS SERVICE- BETTER LOOK AT THE SMALL PRINT

A NEW ALL AGE CAREERS SERVICE?

Look at the small print before rejoicing

Comment

The Government intends to create an “all age careers service”. However, as Careers England has pointed out, in the wake of the Education Bills Commons passage (it is now  with the Lords ) the process towards achieving the new duty on schools to provide careers advice and guidance  and   the establishment of  the new Careers Service  appears deeply flawed. Why? Firstly, as things stand, it is uncertain whether the all age careers service will be a strong strategic public provider of specialist careers support in all localities, or merely a set of contracted operators. Indeed, there are serious concerns that it may only be able to support, on a direct  face to face basis, a very limited number of adults. Secondly,   the new all age careers service will have no right of access to any school, unless it is invited by the respective school.  So, one has to ask, how will a pupil in a school where the careers service is not invited, access it? What seems likely   is that the much trumpeted  independent professional  careers advice available to all pupils 13-16 (why not 16-18, one wonders?) will in practice be limited to little more than  website provision.

What we have here is a profound disconnect between the initial rhetoric and the now anticipated outcome. The   all age careers service as now envisaged will not, in fact, be resourced to provide face to face careers advice to any young people in education; it will only be enabled to do so if schools decide to  buy in its services. With schools budgets under severe pressure and schools setting their own priorities some pupils may, if they are lucky, get access to good professional advice, but others clearly wont. So, a post code lottery will develop. The quality and accessibility of the advice given to our young people will depend on where they live, and more specifically on what school they attend. So much for a ‘national’ careers service! Its branding is misleading in other ways too.   The Government intends to raise the age for participation in learning to 18 by 2015, yet concurrently limits our young people’s entitlement to careers guidance to age 16. Given the importance attached to decisions made by young people from 16-18 this flies in the face of common sense. With youth unemployment at record levels and the number of those not in education, employment or training on the rise, it is surely folly on a biblical scale to deny our youth sound professional  support and advice,  as they seek to embark on their professional lives with so much stacked against them A recent report from the Princes Trust reminded us just how lacking in confidence and self-belief are  our poorest children and if you combine this with their low aspirations and    no, or little, access to  face to face advice and guidance ,you have a recipe surely for social dysfunction.  The social and economic costs of such folly   will reveal themselves over time. Unless, that is,   there is a rethink from the Government during the Lords stages of the Education Bill.

 

NOTE: Andy Burnham, the Shadow Education Secretary, in a Debate on Vocational Education on 12 May, welcomed the vision of an all-age careers service, but asked where  the long-promised transition plan to deliver such a service  was . He asked how the Secretary of State will secure the quality of service that Professor Wolf demanded in her paper on Vocational education.. Burnham sought to amend the Education Bill to give young people a guarantee of face-to-face guidance in our schools.  Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, quoted Professor Alison Wolf as endorsing ‘a more modern measure enabling skilled careers advisers and “proper, online, updated information” to provide students with the right answers.’  It is still not clear how the ‘skilled’ careers adviser will feature in this new landscape. Goves  response appears to give weight to on line information rather than face to face advice. Minister John Hayes had said in the Commons on 11 May that “I find it inconceivable, or at least unlikely, that best practice will not include face-to-face provision”, which has not much  helped ease worries about the end of  widespread  face to face advice.

ISC GOES TO LAW OVER PUBLIC BENEFIT

INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS COUNCIL  GOES TO LAW OVER PUBLIC BENEFIT

Legal case will test Charity Commissions stance

Comment

The dispute about charitable status of private schools has been simmering for several years. The 2006 Charities Act removed the presumption that all charities providing education also automatically provide public benefit. The then (Labour) government swiftly offloaded the task of explaining what that meant in practice to the Charity Commission, which was required to issue statutory guidance.

The Commission’s new public benefit test ruled that people in poverty should not be excluded from the services of these “charities”; that their benefits should be made available to a “sufficient” section of the population, be quantifiable and reported on annually.

Many believe that the Commission has handled the issue poorly. On the one hand it has left the independent sector confused about what they have to do, specifically to satisfy the public benefit criterion. On the other hand they have been dropping hints that increasing bursaries might be viewed sympathetically. This has been interpreted by the independent sector  as the Commission not being prepared to give sufficient weight to other activities undertaken by schools which have a charitable purpose. Nearly all independent schools, after all, undertake a range of charitable activities-whether in sharing teachers or facilities or through various community links  and activities  and local school partnerships. A handful (not enough according to Lord Adonis and Anthony Seldon-see Times 11 May) are   even directly supporting Academies, in what is seen  by those involved as a mutually beneficial arrangement .Meanwhile state heads are miffed because they feel that awarding more bursaries will serve to encourage the independent sector to cream skim their best pupils. It seems that nobody is happy.

In 2009, the Charity Commission put a sample five schools to the test. Two failed the test because they provided too few bursaries. Far from clarifying the situation this caused greater confusion and uncertainty. How many bursaries is a small school for instance supposed to award? With tight margins some might be forced out of business (and the taxpayer would then have to pick up the tab). The Independent Schools Council was given leave to judicially review the commission’s guidance.

This case  has now started.. The ISC argues that there should be return to the pre-2006 status quo because charitable private schools already educate a “sufficiently wide” section of the public to a very high standard while not explicitly barring entry to anyone else.

Michael Gove, when he was Shadow Education Secretary, seemed to suggest that he would help knock heads together to relieve the impasse if in power, but  has kept  out of the fray so far , probably to await the findings of the legal case. ISC lawyers seem to think that the Commission has been making it up as it goes along. This is hardly helped by the fact that the Chair of the Commission is seen as uncomfortably close to the Labour party. The ISC however has its own problems with a number of schools unhappy with its structure and the services it provides. A failure to win this legal case will add to its problems. One weakness of the sector is that it speaks with several voices.,represented by a number of organisations that dont seem to agree on much which has served to reduce the sectors political clout.

This is,  of course, just one stage in a long running battle that has a political dimension  as the left want the independent schools to lose their charitable status which they believe would make the sector ultimately   wither on the vine.

What would be more likely to happen is that smaller schools would largely disappear and those that are left would become even more expensive, and so  more exclusive and would shrink from ‘expensive’ engagement with local state schools. Who, one wonders, would benefit from that? Over to the Charity Commission on that one..

EDUCATION VOUCHERS-COULD EDUCATION VOUCHERS WORK HERE?

EDUCATION VOUCHERS

Could a voucher policy work here?

Reich’s views are interesting

Comment

Some school vouchers systems have been operating in the States for some time . We have mentioned before Indiana’s recent vote for vouchers. Ohio has also administered voucher schemes. Vermont was the first state  to institute  a school  choice  programme providing   tuition  to  students  in  towns  that  did  not  have  a  high school,  so that those students  could attend a public or private school  outside the district. The”Milwaukee  Parental  Choice  Program”enacted  in  April   1990,was   the  first  school choice  programme  in  the  United  States  to  specifically  allow parents to  choose private schools over competing local public  schools. A Harvard University investigation of Wisconsin’s voucher scheme, which is open  to parents on low incomes, found that standards were raised in all schools that faced competition from private rivals, and that the greater the competition the bigger the improvement. But it hasn’t been easy. All these schemes have faced legal challenges and been attacked by political opponents. The Right tend to favour vouchers the Left are against.

Although much of the debate on vouchers in the States focuses on vouchers for private schools, some pro-voucher advocates want vouchers to be made available specifically for the best public schools so that families, particularly in  the most disadvantaged areas, can shop around and access these schools.  Professor Robert Reich, for instance, believes that vouchers should be available in inverse proportion to income.  He believes that the risk of most school voucher proposals is that the poorest children-normally those with the biggest learning or behavioural problems-would be sorted together into the least-desirable (sink) schools. One way to avoid this would be to make the size of the voucher proportional to family need. Children from the very poorest families would have the largest and most valuable vouchers, thereby making the children sufficiently attractive for good schools to want to compete for them.

Elsewhere, in Australia, over a third of children are educated at private schools where the average fee paid at an independent school is approximately AUS$5,000 – roughly equivalent to £3,000. This system has transformed the Australian independent sector, which used to be dominated by a handful of extremely prestigious and concomitantly expensive schools, into a genuinely broad-based sector that caters, and is accessible  to a much wider segment of society. It is true, though, that access is still limited for the very poorest. It is popular with the aspiring classes – not merely the salaried professional classes, but to the wider middle class to which far more people belong. But the politics suggest that it wont happen here, at least not under this Government. Could one ever envisage David Cameron (Eton), Osborne (St Pauls) and Nick Clegg (Westminster) wanting to push a vouchers system through. Probably not. This is a government, after all, that has eschewed private sector involvement in the Free schools initiative because of the ‘politics’. So, the actual merits of voucher schemes  and the fact that vouchers  might help the most disadvantaged pupils-call it the Robert Reich model- are all but irrelevant in determining its viability because of  ‘the politics’. Vouchers are a totemic issue for the left (and the right) in education policy so it would mean opening another front which would give teaching unions another issue to coalesce around, to fight the government. And of course there would almost certainly be legal challenges here too.

However,Reich’s idea merits  closer examination. The Right in America like the idea of vouchers a lot but not the idea of vouchers in inverse proportion to income. The Left don’t like the idea of vouchers much but like the idea of funding support for the most disadvantaged pupils to ease access to the best schools and to break the cycle of disadvantage- poor school, poor qualifications,poor job-all transferred seamlessly  to the next generation. Might some common ground be found on vouchers, one wonders?

ADMISSIONS CODE – NEW CODE IN THE WINGS – AGAIN

A new Admissions Code will be introduced

But  will guidance, stop covert selection?

The debate over the new Admissions Code is beginning. Parental choice is a keystone of the government’s education policy, and demand for a high-quality school place outstrips supply. Put simply there are too few good schools to go around. The good schools tend to be colonised by pushy middle class parents prepared to pay a Premium on their House Price to be in the catchment area of a good school. In cities competition is particularly fierce: a third of secondary-school age children in London failed to get their first choice of school this year. The Secretary of State is keen for a new Admissions Code, though Ed Balls introduced a new one not so long ago which has only just taken effect. Gove is determined somehow to ensure that disadvantaged pupils can access the best schools. One in six of England’s state secondary schools has now broken away from the control of local authorities to become an “academy”, and their numbers are expected to double in the coming year or so. The situation is made more complex because most faith schools act as their own admissions authority. Academies too are exempt from their council’s admissions policies, though they remain subject to the national code and so, for example, cannot select by academic prowess. Parents who set up state-funded “free” schools face the same restrictions and cannot favour the founders’ children under the existing rules. But as the Economist says (5 May) ‘Giving such schools a bit more freedom to manage their admissions would make sense—it should help them to build a clear identity and thus a stronger esprit de corps. But squaring this with Mr Gove’s promise to ensure that more parents get their first choice of school will be a difficult trade-off. At best his revised rule book seems likely to end up only a little less complex than its predecessors.’ Gove will find that simply changing the Admissions guidance and simplifying it will not necessarily make it fairer particularly for the most disadvantaged pupils. The fact that the current Admissions Code runs to over a hundred pages is not because some bureaucrat was getting paid by the word. It’s because it’s a very complex area and some schools have in the past (including Faith schools) devised canny ways of ensuring that they can still select pupils without leaving any evidence in their wake. Some favour a lottery system, which is probably fairer than most other systems but it seems that this is not on the cards as it too has its critics.

It remains a fact that the best state schools  are usually, at least partially, selective in that they accept less than their respective  local authority average of pupils with special needs, on free school meals or with English as  their  second language.When a school  argues that it is successful because of its ethos, superior teaching, leadership etc that may  well be the case as some schools really do add value, but cast a beady eye on the number of its pupils on SEN, FSM and English as  their second language before you accept such claims at face value!

ASCL – SHARES CONCERNS ABOUT THE LACK OF CLARITY ON FUTURE CAREERS ADVICE AND GUIDANCE

The ASCL union in its submission for the Report stage of the Education Bill says it would like to see the parts of Clause 27 that relate to repealing the duty on schools in England to provide careers education removed from the bill. It said ‘We strongly believe that the provision of careers education must remain a compulsory part of the curriculum. This will leave careers education in the position it currently occupies; schools are required to teach it but free to determine how to do so. Removing the requirement to teach careers education it claims is not cost effective because careers advisers will have to cover a good deal more ground in individual interviews and group sessions with pupils who not have been prepared through a programme of careers education. ASCL would prefer a single, simplified duty on schools to secure access to independent, impartial careers guidance for all pupils aged 13-18 through the new all-age careers service. We strongly believe that the duty should continue to age 18, particularly in light of the raised participation age, and that it should be secured through the all age service. ASCL supports the principle of an all-age careers service but is extremely worried about the lack of clarity regarding core funding, transition arrangements and new expectations placed on schools. The requirement that the bill places on schools is based on a service that does not yet exist and about which few details are available. There is huge uncertainty at a time when careers advice and guidance is of critical importance due to the cumulative effect of many changes to the system (particularly the loss of the Education Maintenance Allowance and increase in tuition fees).

FREE SCHOOLS – THE REVOLUTION STUTTERS

The number of new schools now likely to open their doors this September is around 10. Not a particularly impressive number, given that Primary schools are also part of the FS initiative.

It is already clear that the Government is shifting its main effort to expanding the Academies programme which has its own momentum. A momentum that is signally lacking, for now, at least, in the FS programme. The Independent has learnt that since the Free School programme was launched last year, just 40 out of 323 proposals have been accepted for consideration. Of those, just four have received a promise of Government funding. Another application has been withdrawn and most of the remaining 35 schools will not open until 2012. The remaining 283 have been turned down and the applicants told they must re-apply under stricter criteria. These are designed to show they are “fit and proper” people to run a school. The high failure rate is regarded by some as reflecting much needed rigour in the vetting process, identifying flawed bids early on, so saving time effort and resources.   However ,some close to the FS programme suggest that it has little to do with quality control and everything to do with money. Or lack of it.
There are two big interrelated problems facing Free schools and their supporters. Lack of money,and buildings. Of course there have been some dubious bids and bidders but can that seriously explain the punishingly high failure rate? And what effect will such a failure rate have on prospective bidders and confidence in this initiative,  more generally ,one wonders?
Advisers behind the scenes have been saying that you don’t really need much money to set up a new school. Taking a leaf out of the Charter School movement in New York, they point out that there is no reason why new schools need to own a building. They can rent. And some districts in New York provide incentives to do just this. There is the potential too to make clever use of other property, old office blocks, apartments and shops for instance, to set up a Free school. And, of course, where there are empty classrooms in existing schools, these too might be utilised. This ignores two important points. First just how appealing will it be for parents to send their child to a school in an old shop when set against all those shiny new neighbouring £20m Academies. Secondly, and of greater import, converting old buildings, and getting planning permission, into a school that is fit for purpose and safe is as much of a logistical challenge as it sounds and requires capital too. (interestingly the Guardian points out that a majority of Free schools are taking over listed buildings which is clearly potentially expensive) . It all looks quite attractive on paper but in practice, well, its not quite so easy. As Jonn Elledge of Education Investor has pointed out ‘Free school groups don’t have a credit history, so no one will lease them a building. (The government has said it’ll guarantee such leases; but it’s yet to put its money where its mouth is.) And, unsurprisingly, neither free schools nor existing comprehensives seem all that keen on shacking up together.’ The fact is most of the first tranche of new free schools look like they’re mostly going to be in buildings purchased for the purpose, using government money (which is as we know limited). It is still not clear how much money will be added to the initial pot for Free schools. The Partnerships for Schools quango, looks to have a new lease of life on the property front though. It had supported the recently abolished BSF schools building programme, and had looked to be on its way out as part of the government’s quango cull having been heavily criticised for presiding over its waste and profilgacy. It also caught the blame for embarrassing the Secretary of State when he issued a flawed list of school building projects that were being cancelled or put on ice. Now, however it seems to have found redemption and been given the job of finding buildings for these new schools. This Government like all before it talk tough on quangos but then keeps most of them in place. Its a painstaking task seeking the right place for a new school and the Partnership for Schools is hardly renowned for its speed of delivery. For a time the Government thought that the big Academy chains might move in and help but although they have the expertise and mostly a pretty sound track record they are short of capital and are heavily committed already to the Academies scheme. They would also encounter too the problem of a shortage of appropriate buildings. Yes, some are backing Free schools, but on a small scale. (There aren’t very many of them)

And the Government’s flirtation with the big chains, although making much sense in terms of seeking to secure efficient delivery, has sent out confusing signals to parents groups intending to set up schools. The original Free schools scheme came out of the Big Society mould. It was conceived to encourage and empower groups of local parents fed up with the choices being offered in local schooling to set up their own schools –essentially community driven and from the bottom up. But new regulations look to make it much harder for parents to do this (see above). Indeed some critics are now asking what the Free schools initiative is for, if its main raison d’ Etre appears to have been put on the backburner. Its future looks to be as a very junior sub set of the Academies scheme. But what some people forget is that the DFE is not awash with capital and this while obviously affecting the FS initiative it will also impact over the medium term on the Academies scheme too.

Looking to the private sector for support in terms of both expertise and investment could provide one way out but has been dismissed, it seems, by the government as too politically contentious. Indeed the private sector is generally fairly miffed that the Government is perceived to be cold shouldering them more generally in other public policy areas too. The Cabinet office, the Department taking a lead on public sector reforms and procurement, trips over itself in championing mutuals, co-ops, social enterprises and the third sector (look at its Business Plan) but barely mentions the private sector. Essential though the charities and the third sector are in public service delivery, it is surely bizarre that this Government appears to have turned its back on the private sector, at a time when public money is in short supply and those responsible for delivery are suffering significant cut backs. Joined up thinking it  certainly isn’t. Jonn Elledge editor of Education Investor wrote in the New Statesman (9 May): ‘The government wants three things: to create enough new schools to really shake up state education; to keep the profiteers out; and to keep the cost to the taxpayer down. But it can’t win on all three fronts. One of them is going to have to give. And right now, it looks like the revolution will be the one to get tossed aside.’ Possibly overstated-but there is no doubt that the Free schools initiative is facing significant short term challenges.

Note Katharine Barbalsingh has just formally launched a campaign in support of the setting up of a Free school in Lambeth, backed by Wellington College.