Haste and poor planning putting free schools at risk?

In the past few weeks there have been worrying signs all is not well with free schools. A string of scandals in a handful of schools, involving financial mismanagement, poor education and allegations of bullying have hit the headlines. Are the wheels coming off the project, or are these teething problems inevitable in any big new project?

On Friday Lord Nash, the free schools minister, released a letter admitting that out of 24 free schools that opened in 2011 and had so far been inspected, six were below par. Five were deemed to be “in need of improvement” while one was judged “inadequate”.

The government pointed out that that meant nearly three-quarters of free schools had been rated “good” or “outstanding” compared with just 64% of maintained schools inspected over the same period.

In fact the number of struggling schools is seven, if you include Al-Madinah, the first Muslim free school, which received an emergency visit from inspectors last month after weeks of headlines alleging that non-Muslim staff were forced to wear the hijab, lessons were sacrificed to prayer sessions and children were banned from singing and reading fairy tales.

Launching free schools has been controversial within the educational establishment. Many of the early free school pioneers, such as teacher Katharine Birbalsingh, who has battled for three years to open the Michaela Community School, say they have been the targets of protests and pickets, even death threats, by left-wing and union activists determined to stop them. The publicity about such rows has left parents unsettled. Are they right to be worried?

The inspiration for Britain’s free schools movement is widely accepted to be Sweden, where a controversial programme of “free” schools was introduced in 1992. The aim was, as it is now in Britain, to force up competition among schools and so raise standards. Private firms were allowed to set up schools and the fees were paid by local councils, but there was little government scrutiny of their affairs.

In 2008, Gove, who had visited Sweden’s schools and been impressed, said: “We have seen the future in Sweden and it works. Standards have been driven up. If it can work there, it can work here.”

But far from rising under the new system, standards seem to have dropped in Sweden, even as free schools have mushroomed. In 2000, the country ranked 10th for reading, 16th for maths and 11th for science, according to worldwide rankings published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The UK was ranked 8th, 10th and 5th respectively. By 2009, Sweden’s scores had fallen to 19th for reading, 26th for maths and 29th for science, with the UK ranked at 25th, 28th and 21st. The 2009 report also showed that the number of Swedish students who did not possess basic reading skills had increased to nearly one fifth of the total.

Sweden’s minister of education, Jan Bjorklund, has placed much of the blame for the country’s poor performance on free school reforms enacted by previous governments. Neither does he hold out much hope for the 2012 scores, due to be released next month, telling The Economist: “I assume the results will continue failing.”

One reason for the free schools’ lack of standards is thought to be their widespread use of unqualified teachers. A 2012 investigation by Swedish TV found that 80% of Swedish schools employed teachers who lacked full certification. In 150 of these, about 40% of teachers were not fully qualified. The decline could also be linked to large-scale immigration in the past decade, may from war-torn countries.

Last week came a further blow when one of Sweden’s largest free sector school operators announced it would shut, leaving hundreds of students stranded. JB Education, whose schools educate about 10,000 Swedish pupils, said on Thursday that it would sell 19 of its high schools and close down the remaining four…

What are the lessons for England? Alison Wolf, an educationalist and professor of public management at Kings College London, still backs the reforms, and describes them as “phenomenal” changes achieved by idealistic people battling against hostile conditions.

“I don’t think the wheels are coming off free schools,” she says. “Inevitably, when you set up a project like this, there will be parts that are simply not very good. The same thing can be seen in America. In some cities [free schools] have pushed up standards. In others, their results are not fantastic. Just because you have a few schools where things are not good, that doesn’t mean the programme is failing.”

Wolf does say, however, that the programme may be being pushed through too quickly. She says that in Gove’s haste to open a critical mass of free schools before the next election — when a new government might reverse the policy — some mistakes might have been made.

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