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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.