The downsides of free schools

Amidst all the euphoria of the coalition, only the die-hard vested opponents of free schools (or academies as we are now supposed to call them) are saying anything against them, and they’re being ignored, because they would say that, wouldn’t they.

There’s a lot of good stuff in the free school movement; in particular, the emphasis on autonomy. The degree of Whitehall micromanagement that’s been imposed on the curriculum, on teaching styles and methods, and on record-keeping has driven thousands and thousands of good teachers out of the profession.  (That number’s a guess, by the way: my sample is a self-selecting one of my friends who happen to have been teachers).

But there are downsides. A fair criticism of the current system is that it creates “sink schools for sink estates”: but there’s no evidence at all that free schools will alter that. In fact there’s a real risk that they will make things worse.

At the risk of stereotyping, here’s how free schools will work. A group of (middle-class) parents agitates for a new school, because the existing ones are over-subscribed and/or under-performing.  No (middle-class) parent wants to send their children to a sink school. But why are sink schools so bad?  A significant factor is that they don’t have pushy middle-class parents agitating to get things better. They have challenging intakes: children from families leading chaotic lives facing huge social problems, and immigrant children who don’t have English as a first, or even second language. Because the intake is so much more challenging than a middle-class intake whose parents read them bedtime stories, these schools need far more resources than the middle-class schools, and they don’t get them.  And there’s nothing about free schools that makes it at all likely that they will.

The question of local authority control is, surely,  an ideological red herring – baggage retained from the days of  the epic battles between Mrs T and the town hall Reds.  Today’s stultifying micromanagement of schools comes from Whitehall, not Town Hall. And since Mr Gove’s Education Department will continue to control the purse-strings, there is no guarantee that free schools won’t be similarly constrained by the next set of Whitehall masters.

The real danger of free schools is that the system will perpetuate existing social divisions. The challenging intake will continue to go to the under-resourced sink schools; the middle-class intake will be channelled by pushy parents into the new, well-resourced free school. The rhetoric that the free school is available to the challenging intake because of the admissions code will divert some of the flak, but until it becomes positively advantageous for all schools to take on the difficult students, the ones whose parents are either unwilling or unable to take a keen interest in their children’s education, who don’t speak English, who have behavioural and learning difficulties, they will be funnelled away to the sink schools.

And, whisper it not, that of course is the point. The proponents and supporters of free schools don’t want their children to have to associate with the rough tough boys and girls  from across the tracks.  They really don’t want them to have to go to a school with lots of darkies and oiks, so they vote for politicians who promise them – in the coded politically-correct language of “choice” – that they won’t have to.

We heard a lot about the “Pupil Premium” in the elections. Funny how we’ve had the announcement about academies, but not about the pupil premium. Because that, the pupil premium, really is a good idea. Schools across the country selectively discriminate against challenging students, so they get funnelled to sink schools. Challenging students, the ones facing behavioural problems, learning difficulties and cultural and language barriers, need more teaching and get poorer results.  When everything is assessed on league tables, “good” schools keep them away by every means they can get away with.  So, in theory, if the pupil premium is high enough, it should pay good schools to go out to the sink estates and recruit the challenging students: but what’s the likelihood of it being anywhere close?

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