How can free schools know all their teachers will be 'outstanding' and their class sizes small?

Fiona Millar's picture
I was pleased to see that I am not the only person perplexed by the promise made by nearly all free school proposers that the teaching in their school will be outstanding. This claim appeared most recently in the website of the school being set up by my former colleague Peter Hyman. Now Laura McInerney, author of the excellent pamphlet 'The Six Predictable Failures of Free Schools and How to Avoid them' has applied a more forensic approach to this claim in a post here.

Most heads and governing bodies spend a great deal of their time focussed on how to become a good or outstanding school, the key feature of the latter being a very high proportion of outstanding teaching. Unfortunately excellent intentions don't always translate into reality. As Laura McInerney points out finding good or outstanding teachers in shortage subjects isn't always easy and keeping them can be a problem. She asks of the free school proposers  : "The puzzle is this: how will you guarantee outstanding teaching?  Are your local schools so packed with surplus super-human teachers that they will flock to your gates?  Even if they do, will they honestly be instantly brilliant even though they have never worked with the management team or the students before?"

Free school proposers also like to make grand claims about their small class sizes. I find this incredible too. Delivering small class sizes requires extra teachers. Even if they are not qualified , they will still need to be paid ( unless free schools are proposing to use volunteers?) so where is the money coming from? Moreover the small size of some free schools may militate against excellence. Higher teacher turnover in  US charter schools is partly due to the limits that small schools put on professional development.

All schools, whether free or otherwise, have the potential for great teaching if they are well led, recruit good staff , then nurture and develop them. However it is nonsense to claim that this can be guaranteed before a school has even opened,

Visionary statements about outstanding teachers and small class sizes may be very seductive to anxious parents but I wonder how many of these will be translated into reality, and how many parents are being sold a false prospectus?

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Keith Wright's picture
Thu, 19/05/2011 - 08:59

If it sounds too good to be true it probably is.

There is nothing wrong with the intention but as you say, it could be more theory than practice. The danger is that parents may be open to 'seduction' as life as we know it appears to be all doom and gloom.

I suspect state schools may have to lose children and families to the other side only for them to realise in time that the grass wasn't any greener after all - not in all cases anyway.

It would be nice to think we could prevent the unnecessary pain and discomfort by engaging (re-engaging) those families before they leave. Highly unlikely under current circumstances; 'too little too late' I hear them cry.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 19/05/2011 - 09:07

I also find it hard to believe how small classes can be guaranteed when free school proposers have no idea what sort of premises they will getting - purpose built, conversion, temporary? How do they know how many classrooms they will actually have to cater for the intake? What are the dimensions of the classrooms? The difficulty of securing premises (leasing costs, capital, renovation, conversion, maintenance) is a very real and much bigger worry than boasting of theoretical small class sizes.

I went to the Head Teacher's Questions and Answers evening last night at my local comprehensive school. It is a genuine community school, non-selective, teaches children of all abilities, plays a large part in the local community. The head re-affirmed the school's ethos to strive for excellence in all areas of its mission to teach and get the best out of all the kids there. Free schools are promising nothing radical from what good maintained schools have been quietly and confidently delivering for many many years.

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 19/05/2011 - 15:58

What the free schools are offering is escape routes for dissatisfied parents. Instead of using coercion just be good at what you do so people want to use your service. If people don't like it they are free to not use it, legally, morally and ethically. We should be comfortable with successful community schools and also people leaving them if they don't like them. Don't forget it's a democracy and there are limits on normative power, mainly in the form of the will of the people.

Matthew McGee's picture
Thu, 19/05/2011 - 16:21

Ben - education isn't like the retail industry, where if someone doesn't like Tesco's offering they can do their shopping at the nearest branch of Asda or Morrisons or Sainsburys. The idea of parental choice is a myth - everyone wants to send their children to the most successful school in the local area, so it ends up being the school that chooses that pupils rather than the parents choosing the school. Free schools will just end up choosing the pupils that are the most likely to be successful, and anyone that thinks otherwise is deluding themselves. And what about escape routes for the dissatisfied parents of free school pupils, who enrol their children in one of Michael Gove's new schools, only to find that the reality does not meet the grandiose claims? Fiona is quite correct - there is no way that free schools can meet the promises that they are making, and I have no doubt that there will be a great many disappointments as a result of the Education Secretary's experiment in opening up educational provision to the masses.

Keith Wright's picture
Thu, 19/05/2011 - 16:38

Anyone remember the bad old days of football clubs signing hundreds of seven and eight year olds up to their Academies with promises of fame and fortune? How many saw their dreams turn into reality and how many got dumped with the effect being they became totally disillusioned with football.

Plenty of great football clubs out there helping kids to make the most of their talent and plenty of kids enjoying it.

Laura McInerney's picture
Thu, 19/05/2011 - 17:18

Ben, my issue is that Free Schools have not necessarily thought through *how* they are going to be an escape route for dissatisfied parents. It is as though by proclaiming you will be wonderful you will become it. My article is intended to get people thinking about how their Free School will be beter and - if they do figure out magical formulaes - then these could be shared with other local schools so they too can improve.

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 19/05/2011 - 20:46

Presumably the people who have made these claims for free schools have some thought out plans. If they work they will probably be copiable. If they don't then the children and parents can leave and go to any other type of school. The system has a built in mechanism for self improvement which is more dynamic than the current one.

For example the Newham 21 school has said some teaching will be in large 50+ lectures. This might be a way in which other teaching hours are allocated to smaller classes and personal tuition. If it works people can copy it.

Undelying all this is the simple fact that public services serve the public, not the other way around. It's galling to hear people tell the poor that they have to like it and lump it with their local schools, when the poor are crying out for better schools. What a shambles to be entrenching the lack of opportunity at the bottom when the rich can still buy it.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 19/05/2011 - 21:15

No-one is saying that the poor have to lump it. What parents and pupils need are good local schools for ALL pupils - that way ALL children receive a good education. You say that the "rich can still buy it". However, recent research (discussed elsewhere on this site) into the achievements of pupils at universities shows that comprehensive school pupils outperform all other pupils. This suggests that the rich are wasting their money if they are looking for attainment. And it is incorrect to say that "the poor are crying out for better schools." A more measured assessment comes from the OECD who made it clear in "Viewing the UK School System Through the Prism of PISA": when socio-economic background is taken into account, UK state schools outscore privately managed schools (page 13). In other words, UK state schools overall are effectively educating pupils from a socio-economically disadvantaged background.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 19/05/2011 - 21:21

One does get the feeling that some children in these schools will be the victims of an educational experiment.

Laura McInerney's picture
Thu, 19/05/2011 - 21:39

Ben - that's a weak presumption to make. The evidence from the US (discussed in my my pamphlet) shows that many schools do NOT plan these things. I, too, expected that they would but in the chaos of starting a school people have a tendency to get caught up in rhetoric over logistics. I'm not saying Free Schools CAN'T have smaller classes or excellent teachers - in my original post I gave examples of Charter Schools that have successfully done just that - but implementing these systems requires extensive forethought that I haven't seen evidence of in most Free Schools yet.

As for the idea that people can just 'leave and go to another school' - that's another dangerous mistake. First of all children at secondary schools aren't easily portable. Because we don't have an age-defined national curriculum (it is done in blocks of 'key stages') students across the country cover topics at different times. Moving students from one school to another means they are likely to end up with large gaps in their knowledge which affects cognitive development and academic attainment.

Secondly, not every school does their GCSE/A-Levels exams with the same exam boards making it particularly difficult for students to move between the ages of 14-19. If moved during this stage to a school following a different exam board you are highly likely to get worse grades.

Thirdly, some US states pursued a policy of relentless competition between schools - actively encouraging parents to move their children and then the state 'shut down' schools with low role. Almost all research on these states found that the emotional and social disruption to students, coupled with the academic discontinuity of teacher planning, significantly negatively impacted student attainment, especially if moved in the 2-year period before exams.

I am for changes in education and I am not against Free Schools. That has never been my agenda. What I am against is ill thought-out implementation of policies that don't take into account the 'boring logistics', like exam boards or teacher training. It's not sexy stuff but it is the reality of running successful schools.

Fiona Millar's picture
Fri, 20/05/2011 - 06:53

I am glad Laura has mentioned the social and emotional aspects of pupils' development. A lot of 'theories' about school choice fail to take into account that there are real human beings involved. Moving a child, who may be happy, settled, with good friends, can be traumatic and I don't think those are decisions most parents would take lightly. Believe it or not, it is possible for children to be happy in schools that appear in other ways to be 'failing'. My two older children were in a primary school that was a the bottom of the league tables and went through a phase when it was deeply unpopular in the local community. However they still talk of those days as the happiest in their lives . We didn't move them partly because we were committed to trying to make the school better, but also because I believe it would have been very disruptive to their social and emotional development which did benefit from the close and loyal bonds they forged with other children and families locally, from a wide range of backgrounds, which have stood them good stead ever since, and they are both now adult graduates.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 20/05/2011 - 10:46

My granddaughter is at a lovely village school which caters for most of the village children. A survey done for OFSTED showed that over 90% of parents thought their children were making progress. However, OFSTED judged the school as "inadequate" despite most of the criteria, including teaching, being judged satisfactory or better. Why, then, did the school "fail"? Because the SAT results for the previous year were below the national average. But in that year SATS were taken by only 12 pupils, 3 of whom had Statements. So the school was damned because of the results of 12 pupils - a quarter of whom had special educational needs. Should this school close, as Ben suggests? Should the children be dispersed and sent away from their friends?

No, no, no.

Ben Taylor's picture
Fri, 20/05/2011 - 11:45

Janet, you make a good point about the use of statistics, but whether a school stays open or whether children leave friends is a matter for parents and children first, everyone else second. I don't think it should have to close, unless parents don't want to use it.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 21/05/2011 - 16:19

But if the Education Bill goes through Parliament the Secretary of State will have the power to "intervene" and close such a school irrespective of the wishes of parents. So much for freedom, parental choice and localism.

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 20/05/2011 - 16:02


You really should invest the £6 and get a copy of Laura's pamphlet. When I read it, I realised that behind the grand announcements and revolutionary fervour, threre was a lot that free school proposers - even and especially the ones like WLFS who have got funding agreement stage - hadn't anticipated and were ignorant of. It was by reading Laura's pamphlet that I was made aware of the challenges facing Charter Schools and why so many of them have failed. There is a real lesson to be learnt from the American model and if free schools founders remain ignorant about the pitfalls or arrogant enough to assume they will somehow manage to avoid them, then there are serious ramifications for them and for the future of education in this country and it will takes decades to undo. Please get a copy

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