There is a paradox at work at the moment. The Department for Education is driving forward its Free Schools policy as hard as possible, while every day the evidence is mounting that these schools are structurally flawed and a represent a dangerous gamble with our childrens’ futures.
It’s been a hectic few weeks with one Free School closing, another in chaos and yet another the subject of a fraud investigation. The National Audit Office has uncovered the real costs of the Free Schools project while exposing the fact that these are not delivering places where they’re needed most, and in Westminster there is a growing political backlash against Michael Gove’s out of control ideological experiment.
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On 11 December, the National Audit Office published a report into the cost-effectiveness of the Free Schools programme. The thrust of the National Audit Office report can be interpreted as a criticism of the Department for Education for being fixated on driving forward its policy of opening new Free Schools at the expense of considerations of value for money or local need. As the NAO put it, ‘The primary factor in decision-making has been opening schools at pace, rather than maximizing value for money.’
The NAO report showed that:
1. 30% of Free School places were being provided in areas with no local need for them, meaning that £241 million in capital funding is being used to fund schools that are not being built where they are most needed.
2. The DfE has been so desperate to drive its new schools forward that it has incurred extra costs. 60% of its Free Schools have opened in temporary premises to secure an early opening time, at a cost of £27 million, while it has seriously underestimated the start up costs of the schools overall.
3. Each Free School has cost, on average £6.6 million to set up, double what the DfE forecast.
4. On average, 1 in 4 places at the these Free Schools remains unfilled.
As the NAO and the press recognized, this raises huge questions about whether the programme is good value for taxpayers’ money.
In their attempts to drive down the costs of new schools, the DfE has made it easier for sponsors to use a huge range of existing buildings including office buildings, council buildings, surplus hospital buildings, fire stations, warehouses, a garden centre and a builder’s yard!
It’s also worth recalling that the funds for Building Schools for the Future, earmarked for the development of new capacity in our existing excellent community schools, were cut so that the Department could pump taxpayers money into this nonsensical ideological project to smash up local authority-led community schooling.
Perhaps all this would be forgiveable if the schools that emerged at the other end of the process were robust and of high quality. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is a real problem with Free Schools.
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The NAO found that ‘on the whole these Free Schools’ pupils are less likely to be entitled to free school meals than pupils in neighbouring schools’, are less likely to have English as an additional language and are likely to travel twice as far to reach their schools as those in neighbouring schools. (NAO report, p. 42) The evidence seems to indicate that free schools are creating greater social segregation and skewing their intakes toward the ‘middle classes’.
Some people might see this as a good thing (we don’t agree ) but socially skewed intakes are symptoms of the government’s peculiar fetish for giving schools ‘freedoms’ and this also produces a whole range of other problems.
On 13 December, it was reported that the Discovery Free School in Crawley, Sussex, would be the first Free School to close its doors, instructed so to do by Lord Nash (the Private Equity fund ‘entrepreneur’ ennobled so that Michael Gove could make him a minister) on the basis that it was ‘unable to deliver even the most basic level of teaching and learning’. The job of training the teaching staff was so great, Lord Nash admitted, that it was impossible to imagine that they could run a school at the same time.
The Al-Madinah Free School in Derby is now ‘safe’ according to Ofsted’, but it’s still officially in ‘chaos’ with ‘no signs of improvement’ and a failure to address the real problems in leadership and teaching.
Three men have been questioned in relation to a police investigation into suspected fraud at the King’s Science Academy, a free school set up in Bradford. Whistleblowers alleged ‘sustained financial mismanagement’, while there have been calls for the DfE to explain why it failed to pass allegations in connection with suspected fraud on to the police for five months.
These are not accidents, or statistical anomalies. They are the logical results of allowing untrained and inexperienced people and organizations to set up Free Schools outside of the Local Authority, directly managing them from the Department for Education (alongside thousands of academies) and allowing them to recruit untrained teachers.
That’s one reason why political momentum gaining for an end to Michael Gove’s policy. As we reported recently, leading figures in Labour and the Liberal Democrats are calling for new ‘restraints’ over these schools.
In November, Labour MP Ian Mearns was granted time for a House of Commons debate on Free Schools in which Labour MPs queued up to slam the policy. Labour MP Kevin Brennan nailed the dangers of Free Schools in a particularly sharp contribution:
“the lack of oversight is not an accident, as the hon. Member for Bradford East pointed out; it is part of the design of this ideological experiment. According to the Government, a bit of failure is fine, if there are unqualified teachers, and some financial fraud its okay: in the long run, presumably, some good schools will emerge from the carnage of the experiment. The fact that pupils’ education is disrupted along the way—as with the Al-Madinah free school, which had to close for a week—is presumably just collateral damage and a price worth paying.”
Around the same time, the Education Select Committee announced that it was holding a new inquiry into Free Schools and Academies focusing in particular on the process for setting up a Free School, a process we have previously characterized as ‘perverse’, ‘inverted’ and undemocratic.
The wheels are coming off this policy fast and it’s time for those people who have supported the planned Free Schools in Waltham Forest to rethink.