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.

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25 times people used Brexit to attack Muslims since the EU referendum

Some voters appear more interested in expelling Muslims than EU red tape.

In theory, voting for Brexit because you were worried about immigration has nothing to do with Islamophobia. It’s about migrant workers from Eastern Europe undercutting wages. Or worries about border controls. Or the housing crisis. 

The reports collected by an anti-Muslim attack monitor tell a different story. 

Every week, the researchers at Tell Mama receive roughly 40-50 reports of Islamophobic incidences.

But after the EU referendum, they recorded 30 such incidents in three days alone. And many were directly related to Brexit. 

Founder Fiyaz Mughal said there had been a cluster of hate crimes since the vote:

“The Brexit vote seems to have given courage to some with deeply prejudicial and bigoted views that they can air them and target them at predominantly Muslim women and visibly different settled communities.”

Politicians have appeared concerned. On Monday, as MPs grappled with the aftermath of the referendum, the Prime Minister David Cameron stated “loud and clear” that: “Just because we are leaving the European Union, it will not make us a less tolerant, less diverse nation.”

But condemning single racist incidents is easier than taking a political position that appeases the majority and protects the minority at the same time. 

As the incidents recorded make clear, the aggressors made direct links between their vote and the racial abuse they were now publicly shouting.

The way they told it, they had voted for Muslims to “leave”. 
 
Chair of Tell Mama and former Labour Justice and Communities Minister, Shahid Malik, said:

“With the backdrop of the Brexit vote and the spike in racist incidents that seems to be emerging, the government should be under no illusions, things could quickly become
extremely unpleasant for Britain’s minorities.

“So today more than ever, we need our government, our political parties and of course our media to act with the utmost responsibility and help steer us towards a post-Brexit Britain where xenophobia and hatred are utterly rejected.”

Here are the 25 events that were recorded between 24 and 27 June that directly related to Brexit. Please be aware that some of the language is offensive:

  1. A Welsh Muslim councillor was told to pack her bags and leave.
  2. A man in a petrol station shouted: "You're an Arabic c**t, you're a terrorist" at an Arab driver and stated he “voted them out”. 
  3. A Barnsley man was told to leave and that the aggressor’s parents had voted for people like him to be kicked out.
  4. A woman witnessed a man making victory signs at families at a school where a majority of students are Muslim.
  5. A man shouted, “you f**king Muslim, f**king EU out,” to a woman in Kingston, London. 
  6. An Indian man was called “p**i c**t in a suit” and told to “leave”.
  7. Men circled a Muslim woman in Birmingham and shouted: “Get out - we voted Leave.”
  8. A British Asian mother and her two children were told: "Today is the day we get rid of the likes of you!" by a man who then spat at her. 
  9. A man tweeted that his 13-year-old brother received chants of “bye, bye, you’re going home”.
  10. A van driver chanted “out, out, out”, at a Muslim woman in Broxley, Luton
  11. Muslims in Nottingham were abused in the street with chants of: “Leave Europe. Kick out the Muslims.”
  12. A Muslim woman at King’s Cross, London, had “BREXIT” yelled in her face.
  13. A man in London called a South Asian woman “foreigner” and commented about UKIP.
  14. A man shouted “p**i” and “leave now” at individuals in a London street.
  15. A taxi driver in the West Midlands told a woman his reason for voting Leave was to “get rid of people like you”.
  16. An Indian cyclist was verbally abused and told to “leave now”. 
  17. A man on a bike swore at a Muslim family and muttered something about voting.
  18. In Newport, a Muslim family who had not experienced any trouble before had their front door kicked in.
  19. A South Asian woman in Manchester was told to “speak clearly” and then told “Brexit”. 
  20. A Sikh doctor was told by a patient: “Shouldn’t you be on a plane back to Pakistan? We voted you out.”
  21. An abusive tweet read: “Thousands of raped little White girls by Muslims mean nothing to Z….#Brexit”.
  22. A group of men abused a South Asian man by calling him a “p**i c**t” and telling him to go home after Brexit.
  23. A man shouted at a taxi driver in Derby: "Brexit, you p**i.”
  24. Two men shouted at a Muslim woman walking towards a mosque “muzzies out” and “we voted for you being out.”
  25. A journalist was called a “p**i” in racial abuse apparently linked to Brexit.