PARENT POWER AND LIBERALISING THE SUPPLY SIDE
Evidence suggests that too many parents do not get their child into their first choice of school, most admissions appeals fail and good schools tend to choose their pupils rather than the other way round.
Research, from Sheffield Hallam University and the National Centre for Social Research, shows that 19% of parents are dissatisfied with the school choices on offer to them. Some 15% of pupils don’t get into their first choice of school, rising to 28% in London.
Parents who are dissatisfied with their local schools but who eschew the independent sector option, have three basic choices. First, to get directly involved in a school so helping to reform and improve it from the inside, by becoming a governor or leading light in the PTA -an option that Fiona Millar the Guardian columnist has chosen (and don’t we all know about it!). Secondly, joining with other parents to set up a new school. The third option is to opt out and join the increasing number of home educators (around 70,000 pupils are home educated). However, tougher regulation for Home Educators is on the cards which may see their numbers dwindle over time.
Against this backdrop, there are apparently quite a few parents out there who are keen to help start up new schools. Until now there have been numerous obstacles in the way to setting up new schools many of them political. Local authorities don’t much like the idea of ceding control of (their) schools to others. Planning permission can be an insurmountable problem which has often stymied good schools expanding. At the moment schools are only allowed to use land classified as D1 – already in public, non-commercial use (Charter schools in the States can open in old department stores, shops and office blocks etc and are often given property by the local education board). The surplus places rule, according to which schools cannot expand, and no new schools can be created, if surplus places already exist in a local authority acts as a break. The Government has long held that it does not enforce such a rule, but it protests too much, given that the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) does require local authorities to prove that new school places are needed. Nearly all authorities and particularly those in disadvantaged areas have surplus places .Competition of course relies on excess capacity to work efficiently. The Tories will scrap the surplus places rule.
Lambeth had a chronic shortage of Secondary schools for years, so much so that many Lambeth children had to go to school in other authorities. When a parents group decided to lobby for a new school, though, they encountered much sympathy but also massive problems. The Elmgreen School in West Norwood, south London was eventually established in 2007. It is a community school, is non-selective and fully inclusive and was established, eventually, because, after initial resistance, local politicians jumped on board, realizing, after all, that they could still retain some control. Central Government for its part had not interfered saying it was a local authority issue. The Elmgreen School was set up on the same basis as a church school, but with parents taking the place of the religious body, via a charity set up for the purpose, the Parent Promoters’ Foundation (PPF).Last year there were 850 applications for 180 places.The PPF remains custodian of the school’s ethos. It is guaranteed five members of the 20-strong governing body, with a further seven places set aside for parents and carers, who may be members of the 600-strong PPF, but don’t have to be.
The New Schools Network ,set up by former Gove aide Rachel Wolf, to help ease the process of setting up new ‘free’ schools, says that “There’s an incredible desire for new schools,….We’ve been inundated, and not just by middle-class parents. Some are concerned that there is no school local enough. Others are worried about poor discipline or attainment, about schools being too vast and classes too big.” Tory reforms envisage liberalisation of the supply side and are predicated on the assumption that competition among autonomous schools which are not micro-managed from the centre, will boost performance across the board, while delivering more choice. There is evidence that this has happened in Sweden and America. Since 1991, when educators founded the first charter school in Minnesota, 4,600 have opened; they now educate some 1.4 million of the nation’s 50 million public school students. Charter schools in the States are non-selective, mainly in disadvantaged areas and are hugely popular with minority group parents. Most perform better than local board schools. They have also recently received a nod of approval from President Obama whose administration has been working to persuade state legislatures to lift caps on the number of charter schools.
In Sweden schools are also non-selective and there is little evidence that the system has become polarised. Indeed competition has improved standards in all schools.
Significantly, the Tories while announcing that an Education Bill will be a key priority should they win the May election, have found that much supply side liberalization can probably be achieved without Primary legislation. More, apparently, a case of changing guidance and rules rather than the law.
Ed Balls has claimed, firstly that this drive will reduce accountability and polarize the system, though, concurrently expanding the governments own Academies scheme. And that the Tories have not priced their reforms, a charge ironically that they lay at his door. How much pressure for instance will the continuing BSF and Academies expansion put on the education budget at a time of austerity?
The Tories might point out that they will simply be continuing the expansion of Balls new schools but using a more liberal model that is more demand led. My guess is that most of the new free schools, if the initiative takes off, will be run by profit making and not for profit operators, with a minority parent run, or run by different forms of co-operatives.