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Back to class: free schools and academies mythbuster

Red Pepper looks at the myths surrounding academies and free schools

October 18, 2013
7 min read

mythschool

Myth: Academies and free schools raise standards and outperform local authority schools

The first step in any push for an academy or free school is to brand existing local schools as ‘failing’ – and that is the first myth. The government has continually changed the criteria for what it deems to be ‘underperforming’, with it now encompassing many schools that the system previously considered to be improving well. Nevertheless this is used to give a sense of urgency to the establishment of academies and free schools: the old lie that ‘there is no alternative’.

Yet academies’ and free schools’ results aren’t all that brilliant. According to schools inspectors Ofsted’s 2012 report, half of the sponsor-led academies it inspected were rated only ‘satisfactory’ or below, compared with less than a third of schools overall. Conversely, 69 per cent of all state secondaries were rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, but only 52 per cent of sponsor-led academies.

One of the first free schools in Britain was Discovery Free School in Crawley, West Sussex, which opened in September 2011. In June it was rated ‘inadequate’ and put on special measures by Ofsted, who wrote, ‘Too many pupils are in danger of leaving the school without being able to read and write properly.’ Ofsted also noted that the school’s managers ‘believe the school is far better than it is’. As of June 2013, Ofsted has visited 11 free schools out of 81 that have opened. Four were rated ‘requires improvement’ or below. None have yet been rated ‘outstanding’, a status held by one in five local authority schools.

Myth: Academies and free schools offer parents more choice

This is the Tories’ narrative but it is ‘choice’ in the sense that privatising the railways or water gave us ‘choice’ – in other words no real choice at all. The truth is that schools are often being forced into becoming academies, in the teeth of opposition from everyone from teachers to parents and even the school governors.

At Downhills primary school in Tottenham, north London, for example, Tory education secretary Michael Gove used the Academies Act 2010 – rushed through within weeks of the coalition taking office – to remove the school’s board of governors because they had been part of a campaign to stop the school being forced to become an academy. They were replaced with figures including Sir Dan Moynihan, CEO of the Harris Federation, who the government wanted to take over the school – an academy chain run by Carpetright magnate and Tory donor Lord Harris. (Incidentally, Moynihan is paid £320,000 a year.)

This atmosphere also leads to some schools feeling they have to convert before they are forced into it. Yet a YouGov survey commissioned by the National Union of Teachers showed that just 19 per cent of parents believe that the academies and free schools programme is taking education in the right direction.

Where academies and free schools do give more ‘choice’, it is to the wealthy. They generally take fewer of the poorest children, who tend to have greater educational needs, a practice that has been systematised through the ‘children of founders’ programme, which allows wealthy parents who sign up as free school ‘founders’ to push their kids to the front of the admissions queue.

Myth: Free schools are run by parents and teachers

Free schools were sold as an initiative that would allow any group of parents and teachers with an idea and a bit of initiative, or what Gove calls ‘innovators in local communities’, to set up a school. The Tories still routinely assert that free schools are ‘run by teachers’. In practice, most people do not have the time, funding or will to run a ‘DIY school’, so free schools have inevitably become a Trojan horse for businesses and religious groups. They are simply a form of state-funded independent schools – and some existing private schools are converting in order to get the no-strings state funding.

The free schools idea was taken from Sweden. However, in 2010, Swedish education minister Bertil Ostberg said, ‘We have actually seen a fall in the quality of Swedish schools since the free schools were introduced … The free schools are generally attended by children of better educated and wealthy families, making things even more difficult for children attending ordinary schools in poor areas.’

He added: ‘Most of our free schools have ended up being run by companies for profit.’ One of Sweden’s largest free school operators, JB Education, went bust in May after its private equity funders pulled out, leading to chaos at 19 schools and four closing outright.

Myth: Academies and free schools have greater freedom from the curriculum to offer more choice for students

It is true that academies and free schools have a lot of ‘freedom’ from the rules that apply to state schools – the question is whether you think that is a good thing. In recent months there has been a lot of controversy over the new national curriculum, with the government putting in some things and removing others under pressure from campaigners, and over school meals. Yet none of this applies to academies or free schools, as they are exempt from national regulations – and indeed from any form of democratic control.

Exemption from the usual rules also means that academies and free schools do not have to employ qualified teachers, or pay agreed national rates. These are two reasons among many for teaching unions’ opposition.

Academies and free schools are based on the ideology of competition – the idea that letting the market rip in education will lead to better standards. But as privatisation has demonstrated over and over again, it will lead to a fragmented system riven with duplicated work, profit-taking and missed opportunities for collaboration and co-operation.

Myth: Free schools are filling the need for more school places

In an attempt to promote free schools, the government has banned local authorities from opening their own new schools. Without this restriction, they would be continuing to meet demand as normal.

When Michael Gove announced 102 more free schools in May, NUT general secretary Christine Blower pointed out that ‘at a time when the shortage of primary school places amounts to nothing short of a national crisis … less than a third of the approved free schools are primary schools’. The union added that allowing schools to start up where they like has led to 45 per cent of the new schools being located in London, and not in places where they are needed.

Myth: Academies and free schools offer better value for money for the taxpayer

As stated previously, there are only 81 free schools so far. Yet the government handed them £60 million in extra funding for their first year, a freedom of information request revealed – including funding for 10 free schools that failed to open. The first 23 free schools to open spent £85.8 million just to buy land, which was part of the reason why they had to ask for more money to cover costs such as books and equipment. Overall the academies and free schools programme has overspent by £1 billion.

This mythbuster is partly based on materials from the Anti Academies Alliance

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