Free schools and curriculum reforms in the pipeline


Much of the Tory work on fleshing out the free schools idea, based on the Swedish free school model and US Charter schools is well advanced.

The Tories, should they win the (May) election, will table an Education Bill in the first session which  would then  become law by late September 2010.

Many of the powers to set up new schools are in existing legislation. But until now there have been too many obstacles in the way, political, legal, financial and administrative to easily establish new schools.  Local authorities don’t much like the idea of ceding control of (their) schools to others and this includes many Tory councillors. 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.

The Tory deal is that anyone who wants to establish a new school, where there is a demand, should, in principle, be allowed to do so subject of course  to vetting and certain key regulatory requirements. Those setting up schools could be parents, community groups, not for profits, co-operatives, even social enterprises and profit making companies, but in the latter’s case the Tories are not yet happy to follow the Swedish or US Charter Schools models which allow profit making companies to profit from state schools. The Tories see the political sensitivities. But in order to attract big players, those who might run chains of new free schools, and up-scale successful models, they need the private sector to deliver transformational changes and to bring investment and new capital to the table.  Few in the private sector would be interested in setting up a stand alone school. And  the free school landscape in both Sweden and the States is characterised by chains of schools. Brand new schools are expensive and unless some deal is struck over capital costs it is hard to see where all the new investment will be coming from. Anders Hultin, the  a co-founder of Kunskapsskolan, who was a leading light in Sweden’s free school movement,(before  becoming MD of Gems Education,) has said that it  is a big mistake not to allow operators to run schools for a profit,  as the profit motive is a major driver behind Sweden’s free schools. 75% of all independent schools in Sweden are run by profit-making organizations.  Hultin told the Partnerships for School annual conference last  year “…Frankly, the Swedish Model as we talk about it wouldn’t exist without the acceptance of profit-making organizations. If you are looking for a UK version of the voucher system and would like to achieve the same kind impact in terms of numbers, my advice is to allow profit-making organizations. Not least since you already have a lot of charities running schools in the UK. It is very unlikely that another 2,000-3,000 charities will pop up and show interest in running schools under a voucher regime.”

Phil Collins of the Times has pointed out too that it would be  a bold but necessary move to invite educational companies to make a profit, in return for them providing the start-up capital. He says that this will have to happen soon enough because, even if there are enough voluntary sector providers out there, which is doubtful, there is no money.  In an interview with the FT  a  couple of weeks ago,Michael Gove the Shadow Education Secretary appeared to adopt a more welcoming public approach to profit-making while suggesting that there is sufficient leeway in current laws to permit a significant expansion of private sector involvement.

The proposed reforms have been afforded significant added ballast by the recent establishment of the New Schools Network, headed by Rachel Wolf, a former Gove aide, which is   backed by a heavyweight Board of Trustees, promoting the establishment of free schools and parental involvement in setting up schools. Given its lack of resources, it is punching well above its weight.

The Government’s 2006 Education and Inspections Act requires local authorities to allow parents the chance to bid to open their own school every time the council decides it needs one. New schools competitions have been run by local authorities which often submit their own bids, not a system that has won  much admiration in the supply market-something to do with conflicts of interest and playing fields that arent obviously level. But the Tories want to remove local authorities from this decision-making.

Under the  current academies scheme, the government, council and a sponsor agree proposals to open a new school,  the Tories  will allow any group that thinks it could run one, including parents or teachers, to apply directly to do so.

Funding, particularly Capital funding, as we have said  could be problematic but the experience of Charter schools in New York may be instructive in this respect . Local school boards have given properties to Charter companies to establish new schools, resolving the capital problem at a stroke. Swedish free schools are pretty flexible about where they locate too.

The Tories have also announced plans to turn some primary schools into academies.

The idea is that if more freedoms and autonomy are good for secondary schools, then the same should surely apply to Primaries. Forcibly changing community primary schools run by the local authority into academies under new management could tackle deep-rooted poor performance by schools in deprived areas. High-performing ones, meanwhile, should also have the chance to become Academies, having earned the right to run themselves semi-autonomously.  However. as the FT has pointed out, and it’s a view shared by Labour Ministers, changing large numbers of primaries into academies is likely to absorb millions of pounds in consultancy fees and other costs, which can be ill-afforded. If a school’s management is not doing a good job, wouldn’t it be cheaper and easier simply to sack the head teacher without changing the school’s structure.  The same argument could, of course, be made for secondary Academies, too.  In fact, it is logically inconsistent to have Academies at secondary but not primary level. More contentiously, the FT claims that there isn’t evidence to suggest, in any case, that Academies have raised standards. And Tory proposals add up to a more liberal version of the current Academies scheme.

However, successive reports from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which monitors Academies performance, have found that Academies have been improving, and often at a rate that exceeds the corresponding improvements in other similar schools. On balance, the evidence suggests that the improvements in pupil performance in Academies, when taken as a group, are better than in other schools with similar characteristics, although the absolute differences are generally relatively small. A National Audit Office report published in Feb 2007 found that GCSE performance in Academies has improved and is improving faster compared with predecessor schools. , including those in similar circumstances. Indeed it concluded that   even taking account of both pupils’ personal circumstances and their prior attainment, Academies’ GCSE performance is substantially better, on average, than other schools. The think tank Civitas however believes that much of the apparent differential in performance could be because Academies are opting for softer vocational options.

Finally, the Tories have listened to complaints from think tanks, schools, universities and exam boards about meddlesome bureaucrats and politicians undermining the exams and qualifications system. Under Conservative plans, inspired by a recent Reform think tank report, the content and structure of A Levels will be the responsibility of the experts: universities, exam boards, and learned societies such as the Royal Society and Institute of Physics. This, they believe will reverse the devaluation of the A Level’s reputation across the world and help restore world-leading exams to Britain. They will also launch an immediate programme to overhaul the National Curriculum in the core subjects of English, Maths and Science so that changes can be introduced from September 2011.

The review of the curriculum will specify core knowledge that is required in every year based on global evidence for what children can and should learn at different ages. In the Science Curriculum every student will be given an entitlement to study the three proper science subjects – physics, chemistry and biology. The National Curriculum does not give students that right at the moment.  And they will allow all state schools to start studying the international GCSE.  Controversially, given that most  teachers seem to have welcomed its main proposals, the Tories will scrap the Rose Primary Review.

The Tories have stolen a march on the Government on the education front ,at least for the time being, and the Government  looks as if it is  reacting to Tory ideas, rather than laying out a clear vision itself.With  Ed Balls supporting the Prime Minister elsewhere  this can hardly be a surprise.   Labour though  are likely to respond    and it promises to be an intriguing election battlefield.

One area where the Tories have less developed ideas is in school funding, and how their supply side  reforms will be funded. The clock is ticking. These reforms are not cost neutral and if you  largely exclude the private sector from running state schools  it is hard to know where the additional funds will come from.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s