Opinion: More Free Schools, Please?


Cameron is advocating 500 more free schools

The Conservatives have promised 500 new free schools if they win the election. This is about increasing parental choice and raising standards. However, they can be opened regardless of any need for new school places, and so waste resources in the process. These schools are independent of local authorities and the national curriculum. Mr Gove said they would boost standards by harnessing the energies of concerned parents (whatever that means), force existing schools to compete harder for pupils, and also increase the range of ethos and specialisms. Note that this Government abandoned specialisms like technology colleges, cutting their funding in the process.

The promise of higher standards has not really been established. Of 77 free schools inspected by Ofsted 23% were outstanding, 49% good, and 28% inadequate or requiring improvement, and one was closed, something of a normal distribution and comparable with state schools. The effect of free schools on neighbouring schools has been for the latter to compete harder for pupils by raising their own standards, so that bit has worked. However, this has included existing schools staying open longer and offering more extra-curricular activities, no doubt by staff delivering more for free. This is an inefficient and unfair way to raise standards.

Then there is the issue of private schools becoming free schools. The school I attended as a pupil was the private church school, Kings School Tynemouth, which has recently become a state academy. This school was originally founded in 1860 and was private until 2013 when it was reported in the press that the Government had bailed it out to the tune of £5million to become a state academy. This change was sold by the school as a joint venture with the local primary school to provide a better education for a greater range of pupils in the area, an altruistic motive you would think. The truth is that they had run into financial trouble and were in debt. I find dishonesty like this particularly hard to take when it occurs in education. If education, particularly faith education, proclaims to develop moral citizens, then it has an obligation to do better than this.

At the time my old school went free, there was an excess of 2438 pupil places in North Tyneside. Is it the same case for the Royal School Wolverhampton (£29,000 in fees a year)? They say that they are financially strong but want to ‘open their doors to non-fee paying children to return to their philanthropic roots.’ Sounds a bit like Kings School. I cannot imagine an established private school doing any such thing unless they are in financial trouble. Of course, as the government is fully financing a change from private to free status, their books will look good overnight! Many other private schools have gone down the same route. This is an unfair use of tax payers’ money.

Areas like the East Riding where I used to teach have some of the poorest funded state pupils in the country. My old school which was outstanding for much of the 20 years I taught there is now £250,000 in the red despite what the Government says about maintaining funding. Is this anything to do with resisting academy status? The school is now making staff redundant. So why should £5million be handed to Kings School when there are pupils in excellent state schools that are losing out because of inadequate funding? The answer is they should not be.

It gets worse. Free schools can make up their own curriculum and use unqualified teachers. After all the years of work improving the training of teachers, improving standards of teaching, and working to establish a varied and robust national curriculum, all of this can get thrown out of the window overnight for each new free school created. How do British values in a British society (which apparently the Government wants) equate with producing a variety of new schools including a variety of faith schools? The Government worries about Islamic radicalisation but is happy to promote Islamic free schools. Does this make sense?

We are producing a varied mix of free schools, and academies including more faith schools with no consistency of approach, ethos, and curriculum so that parents (not always well informed) are left trying to shop around and work out which school might be best for their children. This is based on an ideology that variety and choice means better, something that I believe is completely unfounded.

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Andrew Bateson is 57 years old and initially trained as a Geologist. He has been a secondary school teacher for 22 years teaching Chemistry and Science to 11 to 18 year olds. Previously he worked in the Ceramic industry in research and development and then management. He has experience of both the independent and state sectors, teaching in single sex and mixed sex schools. As a Union Rep., he followed educational policy closely throughout his teaching career. He has retired from teaching to continue working with OOL and to retrain as a Psychotherapist.

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