Free schools propaganda debunked

Janet Downs's picture
“Free schools provide parents with choice they've been denied by local bureaucratic monopolies, challenge existing schools to raise their game, and they provide an opportunity for idealistic teachers to bring the sort of education the rich have always been able to buy for their children to communities which have been shortchanged in the past. Already the first 24 free schools are out-performing other state schools and are massively oversubscribed.”

Michael Gove, September 2013

But Local Authorities (LAs), which Education Secretary Michael Gove disparages as “local bureaucratic monopolies”, are only doing what they’re required by law to do: manage school place supply.  His reforms have made their job more difficult and the Local Government Association has recommended a ban on setting-up free schools in areas where there's a surplus.

Gove earlier accused LAs of using Tammany Hall tricks to prevent first-wave free schools from opening but this wasn’t true (see here).

Free schools, Gove said, provide “choice” but parents have always been able state a preference. The only restriction is distance – and LAs will only use council taxpayers’ money to fund transport over a certain distance to the nearest school. But if parents pay for transport they can state a preference for a school further away. Even where all schools are comprehensive, there are differences in ethos, size and faith or none. And the much-hyped choice is restricted if free schools are allowed to select 50% of their intake by faith.

The evidence about free schools driving up standards shows only modest improvement, can't easily be transferred to other school systems and is contradicted by the latest test results from New York.

Dr Higham, London University, investigated applications for first-wave free schools. He found nearly all lead teacher-proposers wanted to become the school’s head. They were usually from the middle tier of teachers - becoming a head would represent “very rapid promotion.” But woe betide the “idealistic teachers” whose schools are judged as Requires Improvement or worse. They will be airbrushed out of announcements where they were previously praised (King’s Science Academy, Bradford).

These “idealistic teachers” will provide “the sort of education the rich have always been able to buy,” Gove writes. But “private school values” are no different to those of other schools. Private schools don’t have the monopoly on standards. The much-promoted “private school values” may be nothing more than a distinctive uniform, a Latin motto and calling terms “Michaelmas”.

Gove claims free schools are in “communities which have been shortchanged in the past”. Quite what he means is unclear but one of the first LAs to embrace free schools was Tory Hammersmith and Fulham. Is Gove suggesting that H&F “shortchanged” its school pupils? If so, perhaps he could explain how.

Perhaps Gove means LAs where the proportion of pupils reaching benchmarks was lower. The New Schools Network lists such LAs. But the majority of first- and second-wave free schools were in areas outside these. And the newly-opened Durham Free School, in an area which Gove has previously criticized, has nine teachers for only 31 pupils. Gove thinks that’s “excellent value” for money.

Finally, the claim that the first 24 free schools are outperforming other schools is wrong. It’s a silly claim to make given the small sample size. But Gove has repeated it so what’s the evidence? Ofsted said 78% of schools were now good or better based on their last inspection. 75% of free schools were judged good or better. 75% is not more than 78%.

But, as Rory Bremner’s satire made clear, such soundbites follow Newton’s First Law of Public Relations. If you repeat something in enough media outlets it becomes a fact.


*See faq above What problems do Local Authorities face when schools become academies according to 2012 report? for LA concerns about how they will manage school place supply effectively when schools become academies.

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