Are free schools just research labs?

The Northern Echo: ANYONE IN FAVOUR? What lessons can be learnt from the free schools debate? ANYONE IN FAVOUR? What lessons can be learnt from the free schools debate?

THE North-East now has two controversial new free schools, which are schools funded by the state, but which enjoy greater freedom than state-run schools.

One is a small primary school in Cramlington, Northumberland, and the other is Grindon Hall Christian School, a former private school in Sunderland. More are on the way, including one in Durham City.

FRANCES LYNCH, parent, resident and director of Ingleby Manor Foundation Trust (formerly BO2SS) explains why she is in favour of free schools.

Ingleby Barwick is a new town where housing is affordable and there are six excellent primary schools. Beyond that, however, it has very few facilities other than a supermarket, a handful of shops, a small community centre, a church and only one secondary school.

With more than 1,500 secondary school-aged children living in the town only 40 per cent of them can attend that local secondary school.

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This means the remaining 900-plus students are taken to neighbouring schools using a fleet of more than 15 buses each day. There is no question that additional secondary school places are much needed in our town.

When it opens, the Ingleby Manor Free School and Sixth Form will be part of the School Partnership Trust Academies, ensuring that we have access to some of the best educational support possible and benefit from the economies of scale that this charitable schools group brings.

But it will deliver far more than just additional school places in our town. Our vision is that our young people will become successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens through a curriculum designed to ensure that all of our students achieve their potential, whatever that may be. But as a free school, our vision extends beyond the nine-to-3.30 education of our young people to embrace the rest of our community.

With playing fields open to the public and facilities designed to ensure that community groups and clubs have space to use, we envisage a school that is busy seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

To date, we are in what is known as the pre-opening phase of the free school process. That means we’ve been through an extremely rigorous process to get this far, and still have a significant amount of work to do before we open.

The group behind the free school is a mixed bunch, from all walks of life; the lollypop lady to the retired finance director. Most of us won’t benefit from the school directly because our children are already in secondary school or beyond. It’s not been easy and it’s not for the faint hearted, but we’re involved because we believe that our free school can make a real difference. I hope, as well, that we’re setting an example as we continue to learn new skills, gain confidence in our own abilities and give something back for the benefit of future generations in our community.

VINCE ALLEN, principal officer for the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in the Northern region, explains why he is against free schools.

The NUT has seen ample evidence that many open free schools have a negative impact on existing good local schools. Examples can be seen in urban and rural locations from Wandsworth and Bradford to Suffolk and Lancashire.

There is a lack of transparency regarding the extent to which the impact on existing schools in the area of a new free school is being weighed up by the Secretary of State.

The NUT’s request for details of the impact assessments made by the Secretary of State has been turned down by the Department for Education on the grounds of exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act.

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Earlier this year, Education Secretary Michael Gove appeared at the Leveson Inquiry and flew a kite for free schools to be allowed to make a profit if the Conservatives win the next election. This doesn’t represent a change in Conservative thinking.

Gove said he had no ideological objection to free school providers making a profit from schools. Nor does this surprise the NUT, because our union has said all along that these schools were the Trojan horses of “for-profit” providers entering the English education system.

Once free-school backers are allowed to profit then so too will the growing number of academy proprietors. The public needs to be aware of where the privatisation route that Gove and his fellow Conservatives are seeking to take England’s education system will inevitably lead.

Last year, Sweden’s education minister, Jan Bjrklund, conceded that there were several indications that in their privately-run, publiclyfunded free schools, profit was taking precedence over quality.

As in Sweden, Mr Gove is allowing free schools in England to employ unqualified teachers, who are outside national pay and conditions, to determine their own curriculum and to set up in premises without the usual educational facilities offered by state schools. It is clear how the profits will be made – at the expense of our children’s education.

It seems the views of local authorities are being ignored when they have raised concerns about the negative impact of a new school.

Local authorities are well placed to assess impact on existing schools.

They are in a position to determine the extent to which an additional school may be necessary to meet anticipated demand for additional school places. Equally, they can advise on any negative impact an additional school may have.

There is evidence of the negative impact of new free schools in areas where there is already a surplus of school places. At least £250,000 was wasted in Bradford on a planned free school that, in the end, didn’t open.

In such localities, free schools are merely competing for pupils against good neighbouring schools. This cannot be in the interest of pupils, parents or the taxpayer.

We believe the views of local authorities, local headteachers and governing bodies should be given serious consideration before approval is granted for the establishment of any new school.

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