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 editor of Schools Week.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.