Free schools will invite corruption unless we fix them now

American free schools went through 20 years of shady deals because of their shoddy legislation. Now Britain is heading down the same path.

The coalition government pulled a clever trick with free schools. While swathes of normally vigilant people became consumed by worry about the suitability of Toby Young running a school, few of them realised that Free schools were largely a tiny distraction from a much wider-spread and more important education reform: “academisation”, the quasi-privatisation of state schools.

“Quasi-privatised” does not mean for-profit. UK state schools cannot be profit-making (though significant parts of the right would like it to be). No, academies are considered quasi-private because they are run by private non-profit companies, independently set up for the purpose of running schools. Before the change, most schools were owned and operated by local authorities. Academies effectively by-pass localism and instead get money directly from central government, which then contracts the non-profit organisation to run the school service via a “funding agreement”. Free schools are simply new schools that went through a special bidding process before they start up - but once their doors are open they are an academy like any other. And by “any other”, we are now talking about the majority of schools, since over half of England”s secondary schools operate as academies.

The first academies opened under Labour, built in areas where schools historically struggled to flourish. It was argued that giving the new school leaders greater flexibility would help with meeting the unique demands of teaching in challenging areas. A local “sponsor” was also commonly sought – someone who could bring capital, business acumen and a “brand name” to overcome the area’s poor reputation. However, this small, almost micro-managed, bundle of schools under Labour grew profusely post-2010. The coalition extended academy rules – all new schools must now be academies – and gave existing schools the opportunity to “convert”, giving up their link to the local authority in favour of direct cash and extra freedom. Enthusiasm for the change was revealed in a recent National Audit Office report where the vast majority of convertor Heads said they welcome greater freedom. The recent GCSE performance tables also suggest that academies do appear to be improving exam scores at faster rates, though only marginally.

So letting schools “go free” sounds great. But in the US, where a similar system has been operating for over twenty years, there have been some spectacular problems.

In Arizona the government went hard for autonomy when the policy began in the early 90s. Similar to Gove they encouraged speedy take-up and within two years had over a hundred schools. But the speed meant the State Department for Education could not keep up: the approvals process was not rigorous, schools started failing without a clear process for closing them, and financial issues mounted up.

Unlike in England, for-profit groups are allowed to run schools in thirty-two of America’s fifty states. While the impact of for-profits on student achievement is still debatable, several infamous for-profit “disasters” have left people questioning the appropriateness its appropriateness in education.

The most widely-reported early failures were in the Edison School network. Set up by Chris Whittle in the 1992, Edison aimed to make profit via efficient yet brilliant schools. Initially luring pupils in with promises of free laptops and bilingual education, once schools were taken over Edison closed libraries, sacked employees, and released misleading performance data. The laptops and bilingualism were also soon abandoned. Some argued this demonstrated the worst excesses of for-profit greed; others, that bad financial decisions in Edison’s early days meant cutbacks were more a scrabble for cash than anything sinister. Regardless of motive, the moral of the Edison story is that handing money over to an autonomous private company makes it hard to track, and even harder to enforce its sensible use.

Another common racket in the US is around real estate. In several states, non-profit school organisations created real estate “sister” companies that purchased buildings which they then rented back to the non-profit school company, often at rents far higher than market value. Hence money from the taxpayer - given to the school for the pupils’ benefit – actually went into paying rent to a for-profit company only able to gain the deal because of its close connections to the non-profit group. In a similar bout of high jinks, six Imagine charter schools – with more than 4,000 students enrolled - had to be unilaterally closed last summer in Missouri when a complicated real estate scandal was uncovered.

Of course, financial irregularities are not solely an academy problem. All schools can fall foul of misdemeanours. But the legislation governing Academies was pushed through in five days using a “compressed” Parliamentary process normally reserved for anti-terror laws. Much of the rushed law remains unclear and open for exploitation. For example, while academies must be run by non-profit groups, the non-profit company can hire for-profit organisations to manage the day-to-day operations of the school or for the lease of premises. These are precisely the types of loopholes in law commonly exploited in US.

One way to circumvent inevitable problems would be listening to those in the US already wise to such scams. “States didn’t realise that bad people would want to get involved, but there will always be some people who care more about the dollars than the kids” says Dr Louann Bierlein Palmer, Professor of Educational Leadership at Western Michigan University. From the late 1990s onwards Palmer analysed the differences in charter school laws springing up as each state implemented the policy in its own way. Gradually she noticed that some legal frameworks encouraged fast take-up, while others were too slow, but in either case without clear laws, financial and legal issues soon took hold.

In response Palmer and her colleagues created a list of “model laws” against which US states are ranked each year. This week’s release of the 2013 report shows that more states than ever are coming around to her way of thinking. In 2011 Maine was the first state to enact almost all 20 laws; in 2012 the state of Washington joined them. She notes that “the trick with these laws is that we want to be effective but not heavy handed”.

So what of England? How close are we to the model? The coalition cannot be faulted for encouraging autonomy and a fast take-up: on the measures ranking “freedoms” England would receive almost full marks. The bigger problem is that our current system hits almost none of Palmer”s “quality control” requirements. And those are the ones really important for avoiding disasters.

What could England improve? First, increased transparency about the way new academies (i.e. free schools) are opened. The British Humanist Association recently won a two-year Freedom of Information battle just to get a list of applicant group names, school location and religious affiliation, and the DfE still are considering using the power of veto to over-ride the ruling – all over a list of names. In the best US States there is complete transparency of the entire application process (For instance, Maine’s list is published online), and rightly so given the schools are taxpayer-financed.

There could also be clearer processes for renewing or revoking academy “agreements” as the current rules are too patchy. Campaign groups are already complaining that Roke Primary School is being forced to close (or, more likely, be taken over by an academy group) while schools with similar performance records which already operate as academies are being allowed to limp on. Perhaps this is because the government does not want to admit that academies are not a panacea; possibly it is because of finance — in the US charters have often been allowed to stay open far longer than they should because financial contracts they signed meant closing would involve prohibitive financial penalties. Finally there needs to be clearer guidance around the use of for-profit organisations, and an ability for the public to “follow the pound” as Margaret Hodge recently suggested.

The coalition government may have boosted the quasi-privatisation agenda without too much fuss, but the US's experience should be a serious warning. If its history is anything to go by, there is a need for much more transparency in the opening and closing processes of schools and for tighter financial accountability. Without both of those it’s all-too-likely that the free schools program will end in tears. Or a courtroom.

Photograph: Getty Images

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

Getty
Show Hide image

Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.