‘Free Schools’ are being promoted by the Conservative Party as a solution to apparent falling educational standards, and parental dissatisfaction with local schools. The Conservatives are basing their proposals on a Swedish model. There, groups of parents, charities, or companies can set up schools, and, with state funding, run them. This model is attractive to the Conservatives because it appears to give power to (some) parents, and, simultaneously frees up the school from Local Education Authority Control. Government has limited power and control over such schools, freeing up those who set up the school to run it in the way they feel fit. It sounds an appealing prospect.
However, ‘free schools’ are a contentious issue.
In theory, a group of parents could set up a school and run it. This is how the Daily Mail presented David Cameron pledge to a parents’ group in West Yorkshire. However, it is unlikely that a parents’ group would actually run a school. More likely is that a private profit making company would run a school. They may be contracted by a parents’ or community group, but this doesn’t mean that power is devolved to the community. Who really holds the power? Would parents actually be handing power to these private, unaccountable companies? A further issue to consider is the role of private companies in the provision of education. Michael Gove, the shadow schools’ secretary certainly sees a role for the private sector. These companies would be encouraged to run schools for profit. In other words, public money would go into the pockets of these profit making companies. This seems odd, given the Conservatives statements about needing to cut public spending, and target it where it is most needed. Maybe, what they mean is that public spending will be diverted to the private sector.
The impact on other schools, and on pupils also needs considering. The theory is, with ‘free schools’ there is greater choice, and that this improves standards. So, schools have to be ‘good’ schools in order to attract consumers (parents and their children), and the money follows pupils. ‘Bad’ schools are identified by their unpopularity and will be gradually forced out of the market, they need to be ‘good’ to stay in the market. But, of course the reality is somewhat different, with ‘free schools’ attracting middle class pupils (as evidence suggests they have done in Sweden) poorer children are left at the ‘state’ schools, which will see their funding cut. Yes, there is a premium for children from deprived areas, but it is doubtful that this would be attractive enough to a profit making company. Why would they want to risk their profits by spending money education kids from poor homes.
The conservatives claim that their education proposals will provide the kind of good quality education system that is currently only available to the ‘well off’. Yet, their proposals threaten to further social inequalities in education, allowing ‘sink’ schools to sink further, denying the most vulnerable a good education.
And the promise of raised standards. The evidence from Sweden, and the evidence from Charter Schools in the USA suggest otherwise. The standards are often no better than in ‘public’ (state) schools, and, are sometimes worse.