Monday, 18 November 2013

Would-be Waltham Forest Free School sponsor accused of ‘undermining community cohesion’ and filtering out poorer children

Tauheedul Free Schools, one of the organisations that wants to set up a ‘Free School’ in Waltham Forest was this week accused of undermining community cohesion and taking in fewer poorer children than other schools in the community. The charge of undermining community cohesion was made by a local NUT rep who pointed to the fact that Tauheedul claim to want to attract non-Muslim girls in the face of the fact that none have applied. This is a point we made on this site a while back. It may have something to do with the fact that the schools’ code of conduct for students includes the expectation that outside of school, students will “Perform 5-times Salaah punctually at home; wear the Hijaab outside of the school and home; Recite the Qur'aan at least once a week; desist from listening to any form of music or nasheeds that are not compliant with the Deobandi Hanafi Tablighi School of Thought;desist unislamic communication and relationships.”

The charge of manipulating its admissions procedures is new however. The Mirror revealed that in its Blackburn girls school, which rightly boasts of its excellent academic results, only 8.7% of pupils are entitled to free school meals, compared with a local average of 30%. In other words, Tauheedul’s Free School appears to be more socially segregated on social class lines than surrounding community schools.

This is part of a wider issue to do with the so-called freedoms enjoyed by Free Schools. One of the most fundamental freedoms they enjoy is to control their own admissions processes, rather than fitting into the Local Authority system. They also have the power to agree variations to their admissions processes and codes with the Secretary of State as part of their contractual relationship with the government. Some Free Schools, for example, include in their agreements provisions that mean that the children of ‘founders’ get privileged access in the case of oversubscribed schools. There have also been accusations that such schools devise complex admissions procedures designed to deter those parents without the time or the skills to navigate them.

The early evidence from analysis of Free School intakes suggests that the power to control admissions is allowing them to operate covert social selecton. For example, analysis of the intake of the first wave of 24 Free Schools showed that in only two Free Schools had a proportion of pupils on Free School Meals (FSM) that matches their Local Authority. On average 11% of pupils in Free Schools were eligible for FSM compared with 23% in their Local Area. Out of 55 ‘second wave’ Free Schools opening in 2012, 29 (52%) were still recruiting lower intakes of FSM children than the local authority average. Much of this information is contained in the National Union of Teachers’ excellent new publication on Free Schools.

Free Schools share this power to control their admissions with Academies. Research into the way this has helped Academies to ‘weed out’ poorer children is more advanced and reinforces this picture of covert selection. The recent report by the Academies Commission ‘Unleashing Greatness’, (not a hostile report, it should be noted) said, ‘there is evidence that schools that control their own admissions are likely to be more socially selective than community schools’ (p. 65). The Commission also said ‘as the pace of academisation leads to a rapid rise in the number of schools that are their own admissions authorities, there is a risk that admissions ‘game playing’ may be extended further. As the Commission pointed out this would further entrench segregation between more affluent and ‘disadvantaged’ children.

Some people might consider this social segregation a price worth paying for a good school for their children. But it’s worth noting that there’s absolutely no guarantee this will happen. Leaving aside the argument that education is not just about the government’s definition of standards, the evidence suggests that being a Free School makes you no more likely to academically excel than being a community school. In fact the latest evidence suggests that Free Schools are underperforming in  relation to community schools.

So, in summary, what Tauheedul are accused of doing appears to be a common feature of Free Schools – whatever they say they are doing, these schools, which control their own admissions procedures, are taking in far fewer children who are eligible for free school meals than they should be. In doing so, they are increasing social segregation in our communities and they cannot even claim to be better academically than our community schools.