Free schools debate exposes their flaws: costly, divisive, ineffective and chaotic

Francis Gilbert's picture
Local resident, Andrew Nadin and blogger of the Kempston School website, has provided the Local Schools Network with a unique insight into an important debate about the free school in his area, revealing that its setting up is being delayed by a year.

Here's his report:

Last night, the first public free school debate was held in Kempston (Bedfordshire) to debate the motion “The free school will be good for Bedford and Kempston”. With over 100 people in attendance, including most of Bedford Labour Group, the Bedford and Kempston Conservative councillors and Richard Fuller the local Cons MP (Libs were conspicuous by their absence, no reported sightings), the Centenary Hall had standing room only and the 4 speakers, 2 for, 2 against the motion were given 10 mins each to put across their arguments.

First to speak for the motion was Tom Philpott of the New School Network. His argument centred around three key issues: introduction of a progressive agenda to deal with failing schools is the only way forward, the demonstrations of success internationally (Sweden, USA – the usual suspects) exemplify & underpin the argument for free schools and every child deserves a choice. His delivery lacked energy and conviction, and love or loathe free schools, his speech wasn’t particularly memorable or inspiring. In contrast, Alasdair Smith of the Anti Academies Alliance recovered from his late arrival (he missed the start!) to deliver a fluid and impassioned speech and challenged the free school agenda on the basis of selling a dream which would turn into a nightmare. His admission about knowing nothing of the local educational & political circumstances weakened his case (surely, a case of “see me, could do better” for that homework), but he was clearly able to deconstruct the international examples as nonsense and made very strong arguments about the capacity of an education system never being greater than the capacity of the teaching capability, to that end, invest in existing teachers, leadership, schools and structures – don’t just opt out & build from scratch.

Next up was Mark Lehain, the Kempston School campaign leader, and quite possibly the focus of most people’s attention. We’ve seen him in the national media, how would he perform on home ground in front of a potentially hostile crowd? He was his usual ebullient, enthusiastic self. His argument was largely focused on the grounds of choice. Ideas about choice setting people free to make the right decision for their child, stopping choice being the preserve of the rich and the lucky and the panacea that choice provides within a market context.

Later on Alasdair Smith nailed Lehain on the choice question with a great response about what type of choice is appropriate. Alasdair said all children should be able to choose within their existing schools; the subjects they take, the interests they pursue. However, allowing parents to choose which school their child attends is a commercialisation of the system and advocates “perfect supply” – where everyone should have the exactly the same access to the choices (irrespective of geography, demography and existing provision) – a virtual Utopia which would both bankrupt the country and bamboozle parents to the point of inertia.

Overall, Charles Baily, speaking against, probably did the best speech of the night, systematically covering salient local issues with strong (and amusing) comparisons that completely disrupted Mark Lehain’s “Yes We Can!” dream (yes, Lehain really did do a Barack). Baily covered a lot of ground from transparency to catchment and governance to unqualified teachers. One of his strongest sections was his questioning of what happens if a free school fails. Free schools opt out of the LA system in the good times, and want the LA safety net during the bad. Not good for children, the community or the LA....but fine as long as it suits the free schoolers. Talk about cake and eat it.

Probably the most bizarre part of the discussion was Mark Lehain’s insistence that he would & could rely on his networking abilities with all the other schools in the LA to provide the facilities & opportunities when his free school kids want things he can’t provide. He talked about free school children being able to take advantage of wider curricular offered elsewhere (12yr olds scampering across town for a music lesson??!), sharing resources and other extremely fanciful ideas. Does he truly believe that local LA heads and teachers, deprived of budget/pupils due to his school, are going to willingly and regularly exchange pleasantries...never mind resources? And this would all be accomplished by informal ‘networking’. Irrespective of the educational politics, let me dispel any rosy ideas Mark has got about networking. As a self employed professional, I rely a lot on networking for business, and it’s bloody hard work, often fruitless and always time consuming. And he’s going to do all this networking whilst simultaneously setting up, building up and overseeing a free school. Where does the kids’ education & achievements, staff training, governance and leadership fit into his agenda? He didn’t say....maybe there’s a network that’ll help.

There were about 15-20 questions / comments, ranging from specifics like “How much will it cost to set up the school” (no answer attempted, for obvious reasons) to more general comments of both support and criticism from a range of people: the NUT, former & current teachers, parents and an assortment of local political aspirants, agitators and apparatchiks. The detractors outweighed the supporters, and to make it worse, some of the supporters turned it into a party political broadcast for the Conservatives and a personal appraisal of Mark Lehain’s brilliance – never good when it’s coming from past & prospective Tory mayoral candidates.

The most infuriating part of the night was Mark Lehain’s summing up. Aside from the fact he was given double the amount of time to speak (weak chairman!), his lack of experience and over reliance of rhetoric rather than substance betrayed quite a few half-truths that were challenged from the floor. He was at pains to point out how transparent his process and campaign is, pledging to publish all his data and details for the Stg3 business case (he hasn’t even published Stg2 yet, and a Freedom of Information request to force him to do so was turned down on the grounds of “commercial interests”). He pledged to publish annual performance results over and above anything a parent would receive from an LA school (hadn’t heard of this one before, not sure he didn’t make it up on the spot). And he banged home the point about networking filling the gaps of his free school limitations and the LA not being excluded from his set up (when it suited him). Interestingly, his tune has changed substantially from the last public mtng 2 months ago, so there was no reference to his previous pledge that “100% of his intake would achieve 6 GCSE’s grade A-C”. He didn’t touch the hot-potato catchment question, referring us all to the over subscription criteria as if this was evidence the catchment doesn’t include the middle class areas north of the River Ouse (it does).

So, the main issue, what did we learn? Well, broadly, not very much, and specifically, virtually nothing the details of the free school. Party political, educational & class lines were firmly drawn before the event, ‘winning’ the vote was always a question of who had more friends – so that is irrelevant.

My view was that the biggest issue was the distinct lack of attendance from parents with children in the target age group. It’s an indictment on the whole situation that neither the “yays” nor the “nays” could muster enough interest from relevant parents to outnumber the aforementioned politicos. Yes, there was publicity, flyers, announcements. Yes, it was a cold, wet Thursday night, but parents were not represented in sufficient numbers to demonstrate an appetite for the free school or the debate.

And this raised the question of whether today’s announcement of the postponement of the Free School opening date from Sept 2011 to Sept 2012 is based on lack of available site (as claimed), or a lack of demand? If Mark truly had 100 applicants ready and waiting, don’t you think the DfE would have walked on water to help find a site for this Sept? Tonight he said he has 400 interested families, but like most of his claims, without transparent evidence, we’re beginning to believe his educational dream is actually a political illusion.

And this raised the question of whether today’s announcement of the postponement of the Free School opening date from Sept 2011 to Sept 2012 is based on lack of available site (as claimed), or a lack of demand? If Mark truly had 100 applicants ready and waiting, don’t you think the DfE would have walked on water to help find a site for this Sept? Tonight he said he has 400 interested families, but like most of his claims, without transparent evidence, we’re beginning to believe his educational dream is actually a political illusion.
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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 14/01/2011 - 12:24

I cannot believe that an organisation is proposing to open a school when they haven't even got a site. I don't think a bank would look favourably on a business plan from a prospective borrower who had no premises lined up and who also expected other businesses to pitch it and offer services which the business itself couldn't provide. Do the proposers of this school really think that other schools, with whom they are in competition, will allow the 'free' school pupils to use their playing fields, science labs, technology equipment, IT facilities, sports halls, musical instruments etc, while at the same time educating the children that the 'free' school doesn't want (ie those who have no hope of getting 5 GCSEs A*-C)?

Fiona Millar's picture
Fri, 14/01/2011 - 15:11

It is also worrying that some of these free schools are managing their admissions based on addresses that are not the site of the school. How can parents possibly judge their chance of of acceptance on this basis, and what about the parents who may live close to the final site, but be ruled out because they don't live near the Town Hall or temporary address used on the application form?

Fiona Millar's picture
Fri, 14/01/2011 - 15:50

And here is another interesting development in the free schools saga. Dr Elizabeth Sidwell is to be the new schools commissioner with a specific remit to encourage people to start free schools. But wasn't this the job of the New Schools Network? Have they been found wanting?! In which case maybe they can give back the £500 K they were given to promote free schools. I know plenty of schools that could use it more wisely.

Andrew Nadin's picture
Sat, 15/01/2011 - 00:03

If Tom Phillpott's performance last night was anything to go by, the NSN is far too light weight. They have neither the experience nor the intellectual horsepower to deliver on a £500k investment. In my experience of multinationals & commerce, if NSN was exposed to the market forces it advocates, it would be driven into bankruptcy. A humorous point if it weren't for the fact that kids' education is at stake.
BTW didn't say in the article, but did anyone notice that Lehain's co-conspirators were conspicuous by their absence last night? One of Lehain's fellow proposers, educational consultant Tom Barwood, crept in and out of the debating hall without a mention. He made the libdems look high profile.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 15/01/2011 - 10:15

Quote from Gove re new Schools Commissioner: "I know that Elizabeth will be fair, but not shy away from recommending strong solutions, such as academy status, to those schools who are not making good enough progress.

There are still too many schools below the floor target, and the Government will not blink when it comes to standing up for the rights of children to get a better education"

The relationship between the Schools Commissioner and the Government should be professional and not be on these nauseating first-name terms. It's far too cosy.

Rhetoric about not blinking suggests blinkered, not shying away means immovable. Despite his assertion that he has 'learnt' from other successful countries, Mr Gove has taken no notice of the lesson from Finland: that educational reform is measured, requires consensus and is not based on high-profile initiatives by individual ministers.

"Napoleon is always right"

Animal Farm, Chapter 5

Fiona Millar's picture
Sat, 15/01/2011 - 17:03

One thing that will very quickly become apparent, as it did to the last government, is that many schools falling below these floor targets, are in fully selective areas with highly skewed intakes, yet they are being expected to compete on a level playing field with schools that either have grammar or more comprehensive intakes. Many of these schools do an outstanding job in ensuring their pupils make good progress, which is often better than their neighbouring grammars given the pupils attainment on entry. Ending selection would be a better way of resolving this problem, rather than simply re-badging these schools as academies. However I admit this is hardly likely to happen with this government; it is surely only a matter of time before the Tory right's muscle flexing includes calls for more grammars.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 16/01/2011 - 09:06

The school in which I worked would have been regarded as 'failing' if the target of 35% GCSEs A*-C had been in place. My school was always at the bottom of League Tables. How could it be otherwise when we were up against two selective independent schools which took pupils funded by the local authority, one grammar school a few miles away, and a fully comprehensive school just down the road in another county. And yet we did a very good job. Our pupils appeared on TV (drama) and BBC Radio 4 (work on Middlemarch). One of our ideas for vocational education was taken up nationally and is now a permanent feature in many school's curriculum.

Yet we would have been classed as 'failing'.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 16/01/2011 - 18:53

Interesting to note that Sidwell's schools Hatcham College and Knights are not doing so great. Hatcham's headline figures nose-dived from 90% A*-C grade to 68% at GCSE this year, a big dip, and Knights just scraped past the benchmark for a failing school with 38% A*-C. Knights only 6% of pupils got the Bacc...Perhaps she'll understand some of the issues involved better than Gove!!

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