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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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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