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.

Photo: Getty
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Why the past 12 months have been the worst of my lifetime

We desperately need a return to calm and moderation.

Twitter is a weird phenomenon: a deeply selective, wholly unreliable Survation or YouGov in your pocket, with an even bigger margin for error. I’ve been tweeting for a year now, but I’m still useless at guessing what is likely to attract attention; so I was taken completely by surprise at the end of last week when a comment I jotted down received thousands of Likes and retweets. “It’s a year since Jo Cox was murdered,” I wrote: “the worst year for Britain in my lifetime. We badly need a return to Jo’s concept of moderation now.”

Fairly anodyne, you would have thought, but it seems to have touched a nerve. Clearly many other people feel that the past year, with its violence and disasters and wholesale political instability, has been a bad one. For days afterwards, my phone kept buzzing as more people retweeted it. There were, as always, a few contrarians who objected that other years since 1944 must have been worse; some said “much worse”. But that isn’t really true.

After D-Day, we knew the war was going to be won. Despite the bombs, the country was proud of itself and pulling together, and the likes of my father were hoping for a better world as soon as it was finished. The year of the Suez crisis, 1956, was pretty bad, but Anthony Eden was gone directly, and Harold Macmillan’s phoney self-confidence convinced people that things would be all right – and anyway the economy was growing impressively.

The period of the Heath government had awful moments: 1972, the year of Bloody Sunday and IRA attacks, was especially bad. Yet there was nothing like the appalling Grenfell Tower fire to divide the nation. And 1974 was humiliating for the government, but our membership of the European Economic Community offered a certain stability. We had a different, more forelock-tugging relationship with our political leaders then. The news bulletins used to talk reverently of “the prime minister, Mr Wilson”; now they just say “Theresa May”.

Today we have a prime minister who is held to have been mortally wounded by a series of personal failures and miscalculations; a governing party that has been self-harming for years over the question of ­Europe; an opposition that, until just recently, was regarded as hopelessly incompetent and naive; an economy that could be damaged by an ill-judged Brexit agreement; and a new vulnerability to terrorism, in which one atrocity quickly overlays the memory of the last.

There’s a newly hysterical tone in British society, which had always seemed so reassuringly reliable and sensible. The crowd that stormed Kensington Town Hall as though it were the Bastille or the Winter Palace mistook a man in a suit for a Tory councillor and beat him up. It transpired that he was an outside contractor who had spent much of the week helping the Grenfell Tower victims.

Above all, what was until recently the world’s fifth-largest economy has suddenly found itself on the edge of a trapdoor in the dark. “Back to the Thirties”, some people are saying. “Venezuela”, say others. Even Brexiteers who feel liberated and excited at the prospect of getting out of the EU can’t know if it’s going to work. Friends of mine who voted Leave because they were fed up with David Cameron or thought things needed a shake-up now show a degree of buyer’s remorse. Perhaps, like Boris Johnson in the BBC2 drama Theresa vs Boris, they thought the country was so stable that nothing bad would actually happen.

We’ve entered a period of sudden, neurotic mood swings. The opinion polls, unable to cope, tell us at one moment that Jeremy Corbyn is regarded as dangerous and useless, and at the next that a growing number of people see him as the national saviour. The Prime Minister’s “safe pair of hands” are now deemed too shaky to carry the country’s china. Ukip polled over 10 per cent in 450 seats in 2015, and in only two seats in 2017.

If any further evidence of neuroticism is needed, there is the longing that people have to be enfolded in the arms of a comforting authority figure. For some, it was the Queen, calming everyone down with a message of unity, or Prince William, hugging a grieving woman after the Grenfell Tower fire. For others, it was Corbyn doing the right human things while Theresa May walked past the tower ruins awkwardly, not knowing what to say.

It feels like being back in 1997, with the huge crowds in the Mall or outside Kensington Palace demanding to be comforted after the death of Diana. Then, the Queen was blamed for not being the mother figure we seemed, disturbingly, to want. Tony Blair had the right words at that time, and no doubt he would have had the right words after Grenfell Tower. But is it merely words and gestures we need?

It’s a bad sign when countries feel that they need an individual to sort them out. It’s because of its system, based on openness, inclusiveness and the rule of law, that Britain has grown strong and wealthy. Jo Cox said in her maiden speech in June 2015: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

She was murdered by a fanatic who screamed, “This is for Britain! Britain will always come first!” The year that those words ushered in has indeed been the worst in my lifetime. The government slogan “Keep calm and carry on” was invented in 1939, when all-out German bombing seemed imminent. It is easy to lampoon but when it was rediscovered a few years ago it became popular, because it spoke directly to our national consciousness. We’ve never had more need of calmness than now.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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