Published on the Guardian website
The prime minister’s announcement that, if re-elected, he will
open 500 new free schools in the next five years, has catapulted this dismal policy initiative back into the headlines. Most commentators had assumed that David Cameron would keep quiet about free schools because it is generally acknowledged that they’ve been a bit of a disaster and one of things that contributed towards the previous education secretary, Michael Gove, being sacked.
Indeed, most publicity around free schools has been negative; last year, it was revealed that Ofsted
failed free schools at a much higher rate than other types of school. Possibly the most high-profile of these was the Al-Madinah free school, which was closed because Ofsted called it “chaotic, dysfunctional and inadequate”; this school also raised concerns that the free school movement was nurturing religious and social segregation. Roughly a third of them of them are “faith-based”.
Cameron’s speech was possibly precipitated by
a new report into free schools, which claims that these schools – independent from local authority control – raise the standards of neighbouring schools. The research was conducted by the rightwing thinktank Policy Exchange, originally set up by Gove, and which has been strongly supportive of his reforms. Analysis of the findings conducted by Henry Stewart of Local Schools Network shows that the report has been “spun” to an extreme degree; in fact, the statistics actually show that free schools have no effect on neighbouring schools.
This endorses what teachers like me have known for a long time: study after study – from the
Stanford Credo report into the American equivalent of free schools to the Institute of Education’s research on Swedish free schools – show that the policy simply is not a cost-effective way of raising standards. It is very expensive – the free schools bill runs into the billions – and the benefits are, at best, patchy. One huge issue is that too many of them are placed in areas where there is no need for them, some of which are forced to close because they can’t fill their rolls.
Free schools are also very unfair because only the favoured few get the extra cash and resources they enjoy. A much fairer way of investing those billions would be to offer high-quality on-the-job training to all teachers to improve their practice. As this
OECD report shows, this is what makes the biggest difference to student outcomes.
If you have time to reflect upon your practice and improve it, you do a much better job and students thrive. The free schools policy is monstrously unfair, fuels social segregation and doesn’t raise standards. It’s time for the Tories to start banging a different drum.