The Free School Debacle – My take

It’s been an interesting weekend in terms of education this past weekend. Within the past couple of days, Michael Gove’s flagship policy, Free Schools have been back in the news once again.

Over the weekend, Liberal Democrat Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (who’s he?) has reported that Free Schools need tougher controls, ie only employing fully qualified teachers as opposed to the current structure when they can employ basically any Tom, Dick or Harry. Mr Clegg also doesn’t like the fact that Free Schools are not required to adhere to the national curriculum. He believes that they should follow the national curriculum so that parents can be sure that their children were receiving a high standard of education.

Well this morning the Tories, in particular Education Minister Elizabeth Truss, has hit back at Nick Clegg, outright rejecting the calls for tighter controls. Mrs Truss said: “It’s a shame some Lib Dems didn’t back Free Schools. The whole point of these schools is they have freedoms. That’s what’s helping them outperform maintained schools. On average, Free Schools are doing better … academies improve performance more rapidly.”

Ok Mrs Truss, I don’t like the fact that you are calling Academies and Free Schools the same thing. The reality is these two school systems, while they operate in a similar way, are not identical. Yes both are outside Local Authority control, do not have to adhere to the national curriculum (despite Ofsted assessing them against it), and they can employ unqualified teachers, but there is one key difference: who and how they are set up. Academies are often very high performing schools converting into an academy, or poor performing schools being ‘sponsored’ by someone on behalf of the DfE to build up support and the quality of the school. Free Schools are slightly different. Often these are set up by parent groups and are often state-funded, to which academies are not necessarily.

The other thing that bugs me about what Mrs Truss said was about Free Schools doing better. Am I the only one who thinks this is an attempt to try and make people forget about the al-Madinah Free School in Derby that was deemed inadequate by education watchdog Ofsted? This isn’t the only Free School deemed inadequate or requires improvement either. This means that even Ofsted, who largely will want to produce results which will please the government, are not necessarily that impressed by some Free Schools.

I also agree with Mr Clegg with respect to the curriculum, although with some limitations. Mr Clegg makes the point: “why do we have a national curriculum if only a handful of schools have to teach it?” He’s right in that sense, but what he’s ignoring is whether this curriculum is fit for purpose. In many respects, the national curriculum isn’t for teachers, pupils or parents. It is largely for the government to say ‘look at our education system! This is what English children can do at this age!’ What the current curriculum, and in some respects even the curriculum due to come in over the next couple of years, both primary and secondary, neglects is the ability to be creative with children’s learning.

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