What is the truth about Free Schools?

The BBC currently has an online article about Free Schools. There is considerable opposition to the new free schools from some Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, as well as the teaching unions, who say they will take resources and pupils from other schools and destabilise the system. But how true is that?

Chris Keates, the general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, describes the free schools programme as a “reckless experiment with the future of children and young people. There is no evidence that the free school model raises standards but there is evidence from abroad, especially Sweden, where there are huge concerns,” she said. “Free schools have been selective and socially divisive – and there is no evidence they have raised standards.”

The government says the US Charter schools movement is closer to its free school programme and that in Chicago and New York, Charter schools have helped close the achievement gap between rich and poor students. So are charters schools a success or a failure?

To parents of children in the 3,000 publicly funded, independently run charter schools across the USA, the news must be bewildering. One day education researchers say charter schools are great; the next day brings reports of charter failures. Consider these two reports in December:

• Compared with students in regular schools, children attending charter schools perform no better in reading and worse in math, according to a Department of Education study of 150 charters.

• Not so, according to a report from Harvard researcher Caroline Hoxby, who weighed results from charter schools in 36 states and found those students ahead in both reading and math.

What looks like conflicting research, though, is actually a matter of measuring the wrong things. Lumping all charter schools together is mostly useless as they range from experiments aimed at rescuing dropouts to programs providing performing arts students a school to sing or dance at. Such comparisons are futile. Parents considering charter schools need better advice than these apples-to-oranges studies. A better guide comes from independent education researchers who say the most successful charters – please note that – the most successful charters.

Here is a synopsis of an evaluation as to what makes a successful Charter School …

Insist on rigorous instruction. Students at KIPP Academies, probably the most successful charter schools in the U.S., feed a college-prep curriculum to poor and minority students in large doses: nine-hour days, half days on Saturdays and an extra month during the summer. And it pays off. Three of every four KIPP graduates go on to college, compared with fewer than half the students in the neighborhood schools they left.

So, we have children working nine-hour days at school, plus Saturday mornings and a longer holiday – tough regime but what else makes this improvement? Can it be replicated throughout?

Innovate. Often, what’s innovative about charter schools is not new teaching techniques but how the schools are run. The founders of the five Green Dot charter schools in Los Angeles organized a teachers union and pushed decision-making, including hiring, to the classroom level. That attracts talented teachers and raises salaries — the payoff from using half as many administrators as traditional Los Angeles schools.

Thus it appears that by reducing the administrative personnel – and that is what the Coalition Government are doing by cutting out the Local Authority – they can pay teachers more because they do not have the burden of the costs of the Local Authority to carry. But won’t this simply cream off the best teachers from the state and private system if they can pay more? The answer is yes, in short. So the Free Schools are likely to fill their teacher placements with high-flying teachers, but what will happen when the supply of exemplary educators runs out?

Welcome accountability. The 11 Aspire charter schools in California practice “360-degree accountability,” in which parents give letter grades to teachers and administrators. Students, parents and teachers sign academic warranties agreeing on what students should be learning and what happens if they fall short. Students are tracked not just on test scores but also on such measures as the ability to handle time wisely.

It would seem from ‘360 degree accountability’ that even more pressure will be placed on teachers to outperform those elsewhere for fear of being badly graded and therefore replaced. But the teacher supply issue still stands.

So what are the facts surrounding Free Schools?

Firstly, the Department for Education says applications include teacher, parent and faith groups, and an existing school setting up a free school. Of the 323 applications, 115 were from faith groups. So over one third of the new Free Schools will be faith schools, which is broadly similar to the existing ratio of state to faith schools. However, existing fee-paying independent schools can and there has been considerable interest in this status from the private sector.

What are the concerns? Critics – including the Labour party and several teachers’ unions – say they will prove divisive, are likely to be centred disproportionately in middle-class neighbourhoods, to weaken already weak schools by attracting the best performing pupils, and will contribute to creating a two-tier system.

There are also fears the changes will give too much freedom to faith-based schools or fundamentalist agendas – although schools must show their curriculum is “broad and balanced” and government guidelines say creationism must not be taught as a valid scientific theory. And some critics are angered by the funding and administrative time going into what they consider to be a “pet project” promoted by the education secretary, which looks likely to benefit relatively few children at a time of spending cuts in education and youth services. Teachers’ unions are also critical of the fact that free schools do not have to employ qualified teachers.

Meanwhile, critics on the right say Mr Gove has missed an opportunity by not allowing free schools to be run for profit

So we are likely to see more schools being removed – maintained schools cannot opt out – from the state system and being run by private individuals and companies. The measure of success will depend upon – or be restricted by – the supply of above average ability teachers to raise the standards. We may also find that there will be a polarisation, with the majority of these schools in middle-class areas. Not so optimistic really, if that is to be the outcome.


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