This morning I took part in a debate with the New Schools Network
's Rachel Wolf on the BBC's Woman's Hour
. It was the second time in the past month that Rachel and I have crossed swords on the issue of free schools and the part they will play in the English education system. Last time was for a longer discussion also on the BBC's Hard Talk
programme which goes out around the world and has led to some interesting responses from overseas viewers.
While I don't agree with much of Rachel says, I like her and find her a challenging opponent as she is well informed and passionate about what she believes. However this morning's discussion left me uneasy for two reasons. We discussed the subtle ways that schools can attract or deter certain pupils from applying. British academics Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse
, who have studied the US charter schools, describe the process of admissions and attrition ( mysteriously losing pupils as time goes on) as 'dregs sifting'.
It is also quite clear that, as we have feared, this free schools policy is now deliberately setting out to create surplus places in some areas. Moreover the government has not yet confirmed how many free schools will actually be opening in September, raising the possibility that some parents may start the school holidays without knowing whether or not their children have places in free schools or not. If they do learn towards the start of the new term that the free school is opening, where does that leave existing schools that will suddenly lose pupils?
It is hard not to believe that this is really a huge experiment that will have winners and losers . As Laura McInerney points out in her pamphlet about The Six Predictable Failures of Free Schools and how to avoid them
it is the projects that have opened too fast, without proper consultation and research in to the local context, that have often failed. It will be very sad for all the children concerned if that happens here.