On the day that marks the mid-term for the Coalition government, it was instructive to read some research conducted by Findings from Race on the Agenda (ROTA)
which shows that free schools are not recruiting students from the most deprived backgrounds. ROTA do not appear to be against the free school policy per se, but are anxious that the programme should make sure that the most deprived students are included within it. The research
shows that children from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities (BAME), who are amongst some of the most acutely disadvantaged in education, are "notably lacking" in free schools (for a list of the key findings, read below) This is despite the fact that the Education Secretary has stated that free schools have been set up primarily to close the attainment gap.
I'm reluctant to blame the individual groups who have set up free schools for this lack of BAME representation -- some, but not all, have the best of intentions -- it is more that the policy itself is so flawed. Michael Gove is the darling of the Conservative Party because he has very cleverly smuggled in a policy that assists the wealthier parents -- many of whom are Conservative voters -- in the land under the guise that the policy is rescuing poor students from terrible state schools. He steals the rhetoric of a socialist -- speaking of wanting greater equality etc -- while delivering a policy which is classically Conservative; transferring power from local democratic structures to private companies and wealthy, Tory-voting individuals and groups. This is reflected by the fact that many of these free schools are full of wealthier students and the flagship free school is run by Toby Young, who rarely misses an opportunity these days to say he is a Tory. This is what happens when taxpayers' money is shifted away from communities and into the hands of private companies and individuals.
Why is the mainstream media not highlighting this? Why is it, despite all the manifest cock-ups and failings emanating from the Department of Education, that it is perceived as one of the Coalition's most successful departments -- as Patrick Wintour writes in The Guardian
today? I'm a bit mystified to be honest.
These are the key findings of the report (pp 5-6), which are particularly damning of the policy but possibly not surprising to anyone following the LSN on these issues:
1. There is a lack of engagement with BAME communities in the free schools programme: BAME communities, in particular those that have been acutely disadvantaged in education, such as African Caribbean, Pakistani, Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller communities, are underrepresented as leaders within successful free school projects. Some such communities, like the African Caribbean community, are attempting to seize the free schools programme as an opportunity to improve educational outcomes for BAME and other children and young people, but face barriers to success. Other such communities are largely unaware of the free schools programme. The Department for Education does not appear to have given much attention to the engagement of such underrepresented communities.
2. There is a lack of transparency around the free schools programme: The Department for Education is limiting the information in the public domain about free schools. The public information provided by free schools themselves in relation to equality and inclusion is also often limited. This obscures the degree to which free schools are benefitting BAME communities. Additionally this lack of information reduces accountability.
3. The impact of free schools on BAME communities has been insufficiently evaluated: There has been limited commentary and research on the impact of free schools on BAME communities. That which exists points to concerns about the lack of engagement of BAME communities in the free schools programme, risks of further ethnic segregation within school systems, and greater inequality in free schools than in state maintained schools. Concerns highlighted within existing commentary and research should be taken seriously with measures put in place to monitor and overcome them.
4. There are risks that free schools’ choice of premises will detrimentally impact on BAME and socio-economically disadvantaged communities: While this research did not explore premises issues in depth, a number of instances were identified where free schools’ choice of community premises has had detrimental impacts on BAME and disadvantaged communities. There is a need for further work to explore if such impacts are widespread and systemic.
5. Equality, diversity and human rights are insufficiently considered in the development of free schools’ services: While the majority of the free schools surveyed made general statements of commitment to equality, diversity, human rights and/or related concepts, most did not provide evidence of proactive and strategic approaches to ensuring equality in practice. This may indicate the need for further support to enable free schools to develop policies and procedures that meet their commitments to equality, diversity, human rights and duties under the Equality Act 2010.
6. Over-emphasis on traditional curriculum approaches among many approved free schools risks limiting pupil diversity: There was a strong focus on ‘traditional’ subjects, such as Latin and Classics, among many of the first 40 approved free schools. When taken together with other factors such as limited strategic consideration of equality within this cohort of free schools, there are risks of social, cultural and ethnic segregation being exacerbated within education. There is a need to further explore the impact of curricula within free schools on educational segregation as growing numbers of free schools open their doors.
7. There are risks that admissions policies in use by free schools could lead to indirect discrimination: The admissions policies of the first 40 approved free schools were examined in July 2011. While limited information on admissions policies and/or catchment areas made it difficult to draw concrete conclusions, a number of free schools were proposing to use admissions policies that have the potential to indirectly discriminate against BAME and socio-economically disadvantaged communities. Further research is required to ascertain if this issue is systemic and widespread within the free schools programme.
8. Many free schools being established with the aim of improving education in deprived urban areas are not fully benefiting socio-economically disadvantaged communities, among which BAME communities are overrepresented: A significant portion of free schools opening in deprived urban areas are not enrolling pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds at the same rate as other local schools.
9. BAME communities face particular barriers in leading and engaging in successful free school projects: Barriers linked to financial expertise, financial resources and social capital, along with inconsistencies in the free schools application process, affect BAME communities disproportionately in their efforts to establish free schools and have important equalities implications.