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  • Writer's pictureTony

Free Schools

Why it is rarely a good idea to single out free schools or academies when advertising to teachers.

When Free Schools were introduced into England, the model that was used was that of Sweden, with Michael Gove proudly pronouncing that “We have seen the future in Sweden and it works.” Later he added, “They’ve done something amazing. They challenged the conventional wisdom and decided that it was parents, not bureaucrats, who should be in charge.”

The Secretary of State also made much of the fact that the Swedish government that set up the programme had a government that was “far to the left of Britain”.

Unfortunately the pronouncements were made just at the time that the Swedish government was deciding that the experiment was not just a bad idea, but actually a total disaster that was destroying the Swedish education system from within.

Since 2000, standards in Sweden have fallen more than in any other country considered by the OECD using the Pisa tests - tests which the government in England often cites.

Indeed the 2013 Swedish results were worse than those in the UK, and in 2015 the OECD reported that “Sweden’s school system is in need of urgent change.”

But unlike the UK, it is not government funding that is the problem. Rather it is a system that is fragmented, and one that is deemed to be failing those who are in the most need of a good education. The OECD report criticised “unclear education priorities”, “lack in coherence” and “unreliable data”. But it is noticeable that, as in England, teacher numbers are declining.

Fortunately, although the government in England has poured vast amounts of money into supporting Free Schools, there are still only around 150 free schools in the secondary age range in England and 175 in the primary age range. Government figures are higher but these seem to include schools which are not yet open or which are “pending”.

Now we have the news that Southwark Free School, vigourously supported by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson when it was set up against a lot of local opposition, is about to close part way through the school year. Like a number of other free schools it has under recruited both pupils and staff.

Many of the schools given the go-ahead by the government never actually start because of the premises problem, while others that have started failed to recruit the teachers needed.

Unfortunately Local Authorities are themselves no longer permitted to open new schools, and so the development of new schools to meet the massively increasing number of children of primary school age is falling behind targets. This latest free school to fail had 56 pupils (according to the council) which it says amounted to “14% of the 420 capacity.”

The headteacher was the only permanent staff teacher, with supply teachers and teaching assistants taking lessons. No academy chains have shown an interest in the school and the 2014/15 accounts show that the costs of the school were £656,000; over £10,000 per pupil.

What this means for companies selling into education is that targeting free schools is not a particularly viable option, and that it still makes sense to treat secondary schools and primary schools as complete units, with promotions going to all schools in that age group (independent, LA, academies and free schools), unless there is a very clear reason not to promote to a specific group.

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