Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Photo: Policy Exchange/Flickr
Funded by the state yet set up and controlled by external parties, free schools have since their introduction in 2010 divided opinion and in some cases even communities. Their most vocal detractor, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), claim free schools acquire a disproportionate share of funding, undermine teachers’ professional status, pay and conditions and threaten democratic local accountability of schools. For their supporters, no one more so than the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, free schools are a solution to educational underachievement, providing autonomy, flexibility and an unprecedented opportunity for parents to influence the learning experience of their children. Indeed, ‘power to the parents’ was the dominant discourse accompanying the policy announcement. Yet, as a recent report by the National Audit Office revealed, only 29 per cent of free schools currently open are ran by parent and community groups and just 18 per cent by teacher-led groups. Such statistics, striking as they are, beg the question, who else is running free schools, how and for what purpose?
The second largest group running free schools are faith organisations (26 per cent), yet there are also a significant number ran by not-for-profit companies such as E-ACT, which operates 24 academies, including free schools. The involvement of such companies has raised the spectre of the privatisation of compulsory and further education in the UK. According to the NUT, companies and academy chains bidding to run free schools are lobbying the Government to allow them to do so on a for-profit basis. Although for this to happen a change in law is required, leaked details of discussions held in the Department for Education advocating profit-making in free schools and academies—and Gove’s failure to rule this out—have exacerbated concerns.
Yet even without a change in law the so-called ‘free schools revolution’ offers a number of avenues for financial gain. For senior employees of the charities running free schools and academies the rewards can be considerable. As E-ACT’s former director general, Sir Bruce Liddington earned almost £300,000 in 2010/11, making him one of the highest paid people in education. Similarly, when one considers that for heads of free schools pay is not determined by a national framework and is typically higher than in schools under local council control, it is perhaps unsurprising that so many applications have been led by would-be head teachers—almost 25 per cent in 2011, according to the Institute of Education—many of whom have no teaching experience.
More importantly, it is already legal for charitable trusts to outsource the day-to-day running of the school to for-profit Educational Management Organisations (EMO’s). Opened in 2012, IES Breckland in Sussex is the first free school to operate on this basis after its parent-led governing trust signed a ten-year contract worth £21 million with the EMO Internationella Engleska Skolan (IES) to provide for the entire running of the school, including teachers’ salaries. IES has since admitted that under its management the education provision at IES Breckland has been sub-standard, strengthening claims that education provision and profit are fundamentally incompatible.
Even when profit is not an immediate possibility, however, there is enough evidence to suggest that free schools are already colonised by the logic of the private sector, primarily a fixation with cost reduction and efficiency maximisation. The contract dispute at STEM 6 College in Islington provides a case in point. Established as a free school in 2013 by the Skills and Development Agency—a not-for-profit company with a for-profit subsidiary—STEM 6 recently offered teachers what amounted to zero-hour contracts. The contracts stipulated that ‘the school reserves the right to temporarily lay [staff] off from work without normal contractual pay or to reduce . . . normal working hours and reduce . . . pay proportionately’. Staff were also threatened with ‘legal consequences’ should they not sign the new contracts and STEM 6 refused to grant union recognition.
Following a two-day strike by teachers at STEM 6 in early February—the first strike at a free school—and the threat of a second, management eventually agreed to grant union recognition and enter into contractual negotiations. According to its assistant secretary, Ken Muller, Islington NUT is hopeful that a suitable conclusion will soon be reached and further strike action avoided.
Although the partial victory of the STEM 6 teachers sets an encouraging precedent as regards union organising and zero-hour contracts in free schools, the attempts of management to drive down costs by attacking labour conditions and their initial refusal to grant union recognition suggest that far from simply providing autonomy for parents, free schools can also provide carte blanche for employers to exploit staff. As with the private sector, the absence of regulation, in this instance a nationally negotiated pay scale, means very different things for those at the top than it does for those at the bottom, for whom precarisation is a very real possibility and in some cases already a reality.
Alongside the STEM 6 dispute, revelations of serious financial mismanagement at Barnfield Federation, which runs a number of academies including one free school, the stripping of ten academies from E-ACT for poor performance, and an increasing number of failing free schools point to an educational sub-sector facing serious problems, not least of all the prospect of future privatisation.
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control.
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going