Free School Thinking

In the news this morning, it was announced that our Prime Minister was allocating 120 million pounds to the creation of ‘free schools’ to address the shortage of places in education over the next 5 years. The name suggests freedom from bureaucracy rather than free of any cost!

A news reporter boldly stated that these free schools can be set up by businesses, community groups, faith groups and in fact anyone who wants to make it happen. Wow – the idea of an ‘Airbus’ School or ‘Honda’ School sounds exciting, especially as businesses are undoubtedly more rooted in productivity and efficiency than local councils. What a great idea – lose the red tape and let schools get on with educating and inspiring the next generation.

So the potential for innovation is clear, but so is the potential for disaster.

A few years ago, a friend of mine asked me to become a Governor at his school. I was a Governor of two schools at the time, so the request was reasonable, however this wasn’t a school that his son or daughter attended. It was a school he wanted to become Headmaster of. Out of the blue he was launching a bid to take over a local school and become the Head. My friend had never worked in education, and had no links with any school. All he had was passion, and whilst admirable, the question has to be asked – is passion for education and young people enough to start a school?

Prior to that request, a different friend of mine was the only qualified teacher in a small private faith school. He asked me to have a look around, so I visited during an average day. I witnessed students being taught by well-meaning but untrained parents, and I saw Maths questions answered by ‘have a look in the book’, and even ‘let’s pray that the answer becomes clear to you’.  Is that a serious approach to education for 11-16 year olds? I was pleased to hear that the school closed only a few months later, with the majority of students transitioning to mainstream schools and receiving a quality education. My friend works elsewhere.

The news article this morning also cited ‘community groups’ as potential free school owners. So in opening the door to business led innovative schools (an exciting prospect), the door is also open to ‘Littleville’s keep fit school’, or ‘Village Volunteers School for anyone’. I would ask the same question of any future free school group as I bluntly asked my two friends… ‘what on earth makes you think you can run a school?’. Do you disrespect the vast experience of teachers and school leaders so much that you think you can waltz into any position and do a better job?

Of course there are deep discussions regarding today’s announcement. Are free schools automatically selective? Is money being taken from comprehensive schools to fund these? What quality controls and accountability will be in place? Are the results of existing free schools as good as (or better than) national averages? These answers will come out in the wash over the next few months and years.

I declined to support my friend’s bid to become Head, and declined to recommend the faith school because I want my children to be taught by trained and experienced teachers, in schools that know about education in the short and long term. Can some leadership roles be taken on by business leaders? Probably. Can those role be taken on by anyone in the community with just a passion? Not a chance.

Free schools may be very successful in the future educational map of our country, but only if accountability and quality is at the top of the requirement list of any proposing group.

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