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2 June 2011updated 18 Jan 2012 4:28am

Gove’s free schools policy is already in trouble

Even the parents wanting to set up free schools are frustrated.

By Francis Gilbert

From the outset, the coalition’s support of free schools was heralded as its defining education policy. Groups of parents, teachers or community members would be given the power and resources to set up their own schools, particularly in areas of high social deprivation. These groups would sweep aside the concerns of the bureaucratic local authorities and build pioneering institutions that would help lift hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty. In June 2010, Gove said that the principle behind free schools was “closing the attainment gap” between the poorest and richest students.

A year later, we learned that there were 323 free school proposals but only 40 groups received the go-ahead: nine out of ten proposals were rejected. Four free schools are expected to open in September. The former Labour adviser Peter Hyman is now aiming to set up one in east London. Considering that there are 20,000 state schools in England and the approved free schools add up to just 0.2 per cent of this, it’s a droplet in the ocean. By my estimate, they will take in no more than 4,000 children – 2 per cent of Gove’s initial target of 200,000. This statistic alone indicates that the policy has failed. Even if every free school were stuffed with poor children, the total number would amount to a tiny fraction of the four million children living in poverty. Given Gove’s stated intention to close the attainment gap, it’s worth asking how many free schools will serve our poorest children.

My analysis indicates very few. First, of the 40 approved schools, six are currently private; there is no reason to believe that their intake will change significantly when they become state-funded. Furthermore, 11 of the schools are religious, catering for the Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Christian faiths. Research carried out by the Campaign for State Education indicates that faith schools tend to attract children from prosperous backgrounds.

Nearly a third of free schools will be run by private companies. Educational chains such as Ark, Harris and E-Act have been running inner-city academies for years but are now part of the free schools programme in a big way. A parent-led group behind an unsuccessful application to become a free school lamented that going with a private provider was the “only game in town”. Such companies are used to working with poorer pupils but a close analysis of their methods shows that their achievements are patchy. Many rely on vocational qualifications, excluding undesirable students and cherry-picking the brightest pupils to boost results.

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Just four of the approved schools meet Gove’s initial criteria for free schools: local parents setting up schools to help poor children. But even these are open to question. The BBG Parents’ Alliance’s school in Kirklees is a bona fide effort by parents to establish a school in their deprived community. Yet a report published the Department for Education (DfE) last year said that the 900-pupil institution will create a surplus of school places in the area. The millions spent on the BBG free school could also be more fairly distributed among existing local schools.

Cloak and dagger

For such a tiny programme, despite what seemed like efforts by the government to hide the figures, we know the free schools project is proving expensive: 97 civil servants are working on it, the New Schools Network has been given £500,000 to promote its cause, and many others, such as the free schools founders and private companies, are almost certainly in receipt of considerable sums, as yet undisclosed.

As nearly every free school’s unique selling point is small class sizes, we also know that they are going to be very expensive to staff. This isn’t even counting the capital costs of the buildings to house such schools. The DfE has refused all Freedom of Information requests for us to know these – even when presented as parliamentary questions – but we know that they are going to be high. In February, the Today programme reported that the cost of one school is going to be £15m.

The DfE’s reluctance to reveal the costs signals another problem: the general cloak-and-dagger secrecy surrounding the project. Even the parents wanting to set up free schools are frustrated. One free school campaigner told me: “Our biggest concern is the lack of transparency in decision-making at the DfE. Policy is being made up on the hoof. There appears to be no strategic consideration of where new schools are needed.” On top of this, there are concerns that because “amateur” parents are in charge and untrained teachers are allowed to teach, standards will be low.

The discontent is widespread. Commenters on the Local Schools Network website express concern that free schools will increase social segregation and suck resources away from existing institutions. In many cases, the programme involves taking resources from our poorest children in local authority schools and giving them to a privileged few. Small though it is, the free schools policy is already proving a disaster.

Francis Gilbert is a teacher. He blogs for the Local Schools Network and is the author of “The Last Day of Term”, to be published in July by Short Books (£12.99)

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