Analysis: Power to the people?

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With the first 'free schools' preparing to open next year, debate is raging about their potential impact on communities and education. Karen Faux hears both sides.

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So far the application procedure for 'free schools' has 16 contenders going through to the final rounds. The next step is to come up with detailed business and case plans to convince the DfE they are ready to open their doors in September 2011.

In the wake of all the Government's rhetoric about 'hundreds of expressions of interest', the figures highlight that any move to free schools is certainly not going to happen overnight.

But despite this reality check, do free schools represent an insidious threat to an established state education system which continues to strive for inclusiveness and fairness? Or will free schools truly succeed in delivering pupil and parent power, by being independent state schools, run by teachers and answerable to parents?

WHAT IS A FREE SCHOOL?

Free schools are to be charitable charter schools set up from scratch and funded by the state. They will have greater freedoms over management, teachers' pay and the curriculum than most existing schools.

A free school can be set up by any suitable candidate - including teachers, parents, businesses, charities, community and faith groups and independent schools. Like academies, these schools will not be controlled by local authorities and will have freedom from following the national curriculum. They will be able to set their own term dates and holidays and their own pay and conditions for staff. A new body, the New Schools Network, has been established to help those who want to advance proposals for a local free school.

Sweden takes some credit for influencing the development of this model; free schools have steadily blossomed there over the last 18 years. Kunskapsskolan, a leading provider of secondary education in Sweden, is now operating in the UK and promoting its personalised approach to learning.

AGAINST THE IDEA

Shadow Home Secretary Ed Balls has wasted no time in speaking out against free schools.

At the Labour party conference he said research has shown that schools which are founded by parents, teachers and private firms, lower standards and increase inequality. He also pointed to the injustice of moving towards this investment at a time when the £55bn Building Schools for the Future plan has been scrapped.

At the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), a recent poll testifies to a negative view on free schools. Of almost 2,000 teachers polled, over 30 per cent thought the free school initiative will have no impact on achievement.

Martin Johnson, deputy general secretary of the ATL, disputes the viability - and desirability - of free schools, not least on the grounds of finance.

'For many years, the central tenet of the education department and the Treasury has been to eradicate surplus pupil places,' he says. 'Despite the difficulties in gauging school populations, there needs to be planning for places, but free schools are being established irrespective of local demographics.

'Another problem is that it is generally accepted that it is difficult for small schools to be financially viable - and many of the proposed free schools are small. The DfE has said they will be funded at the same level as other schools, but without cutting corners on qualified staff, premises and health and safety standards it's difficult to see how they can be viable. Meanwhile, there is a big emphasis on the business plan. Is a benefactor expected to step in?'

But Mr Johnson's biggest concern is that free schools will create more, rather than less, pupil segregation.

'There is much evidence to show that a school system does better when it has a balanced intake of pupils, and despite policies over the years, our school system has a persistent level of segregation. This should be reduced,' he says.

'We can make an assumption that the promoters of free schools will be from particular social groups or faiths, and we fear that there will be covert selection, as there is in other schools. Free schools are going to be for a small group of parents who are all alike, and essentially they will be removing pupils from other local schools.'

He adds, 'Successive Governments have said schools should not select pupils, where one set of parents are advantaged at the expense of others. This local need will be thwarted by free schools.'

DEMAND AND ACCESS

But as far as Tania Sidney-Roberts, a teacher and parent who is setting up the Free School Norwich, is concerned, meeting local need is precisely what free schools are all about.

'Our ethos will be "Opportunity and achievement for all",' she says. 'The school will welcome all children, regardless of faith, ability, and cultural or social background. The school will actively encourage and celebrate difference, rather than segregate groups in society. So in our case, it is not a valid argument.'

For St Luke's Church in Hampstead, London, its bid to open a free school in Camden is about plugging the dire shortage of primary places in the borough, as well as creating a school that will deliver the best for children and parents.

Penny Roberts, a former teacher and child psychologist who is leading the bid, says the Government is being rigorous about testing local demand.

'Part of the application process is to demonstrate a real statistical demand for a school, and a lot of research is required,' she says. 'In Camden we will start with a reception intake and build the school from there, so we won't be taking pupils away from other schools.'

Another candidate on track for a September opening is the Childcare Company, run by husband-and-wife team Sally and Chris Eaton. Mrs Eaton wholly supports a vision for inclusiveness that she believes free schools can achieve, and aims to offer an education that focuses on the 'whole' child.

She says, 'The shortlist of prospective free schools highlights that all have experience and passion and believe in childcare and education. Once the initiative gets going, I believe people's fears will be forgotten.'

She adds, 'One has to give the DfE credit for being true to the notion of quality. It had hundreds of applications and selected 16 that it feels are ready now. It is all about quality rather than quantity, and others will come on board when they are ready.'

LOCAL SUPPORT

Many of the 16 groups, of which seven are based in Greater London, had either been considering opening a school or already had their plans advanced.

Ms Sidney-Roberts says she had the idea in mind to develop such a school for several years - 'I just hadn't been given the opportunity to realise the idea until now. It has therefore been easy to transfer the idea to a proposal application form for submission.'

She says her motivation is twofold. 'First, we want to improve standards in education for children. Second, we want to provide a school service which acknowledges and addresses the needs of modern-day working parents.

'As a result, we have designed a school which has a skills-based, thematic curriculum which will be fun and relevant for today's child and which will place a strong emphasis on real learning within the community.

'The school will also provide a high-quality, low-cost extended school service which is open all year round and throughout holidays. This will enable parents, particularly single parents and those on low incomes, to work full-time in the city centre while their children are being cared for in a safe, comfortable, structured and familiar environment.'

Ms Sidney-Roberts claims that the Free School Norwich is enjoying tremendous support from both the local and wider community. 'Our website mailbox receives messages of support and enthusiasm every day from individuals and organisations. I think this is because we have come up with such a simple, common-sense solution to a problem which a great many working parents face every day as they try to juggle their children's education and their need to work.'

There is also strong support for St Luke's free school in Camden. Penny Roberts says, 'We have a very strong local community group and we are also receiving a lot of support from local council, which is run by Labour. We are looking at a seven-year development period for our school and we see ourselves as taking pressure out of the system.'

Ms Roberts rebuts criticism about the governance of free schools, arguing that they will be accountable to the wider community. She says, 'Apart from working closely with Camden council, we will be part of the network of 150 Church of England schools in north London, to whom we will be accountable.'

Clearly, the 16 pioneers of free schools have quite a responsibility before them in carving a path for the model. As Penny Roberts and others suggest, success is likely to depend on working collaboratively on a local level, with councils and organisations, rather than being isolated and unaccountable - as their fiercest critics might have them.

Further information:

- http://newschoolsnetwork.org

- http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/leadership/typesofschools/ freeschools

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