Education Sep 14 2010

Free schools – who really gets to choose?

Link to original article in Guardian Education

I am not in the habit of reading the Spectator, but a few weeks ago someone alerted me to its front page story ‘The new school bullies’. I got an honourable mention for supporting legal challenges to academies. The gist of the piece was that similar ‘guerrilla’ tactics might be used to prevent the expansion of Tory free schools.

It was good to be reminded of the specific case to which the article referred – a judicial review, by a local parent, of a decision to give a brand new school in one of the most affluent parts of London to an elite university.

The parent’s case, which I and others supported, was based on a simple and important question. Who runs our schools and how do we choose the people who run them?  We weren’t all agreed on the answer – some parents were in favour of a faith school, others wanted a maintained community school, some would have settled for a co operative trust. However we were united on the principle that there should be an open competition and not a deal hammered out behind closed doors.

We lost, partly because the last government, in spite of its rhetoric about empowering people, had made it perfectly legal for a ‘preferred sponsor’ to be chosen in this way. At one stage in the process, it was even explained to the thousands of parents who had signed petitions that we could legitimately be ignored because we were obviously ‘an organised campaign’

Fast forward to 2010 and it is clear how easy it has been to abuse that legislation. How did the 16 free schools announced last week get chosen? They seem to be a motley bunch – seven  are faith based after a volte face by the Secretary of State, one a private school, two run by childcare providers and two sponsored by a single academy group that happens to be well represented amongst trustees and advisers  of the New Schools Network, the Gove-funded charity that arranges these deals.

It is said that all will focus on high standards , good behaviour and teaching, as if every other school in the country went out of its way to find the worst staff and force their pupils to be rude and fail. There are much trailed ‘special features’ – mostly things that are commonplace already; music lessons , use of smartphones and something called ‘collapsed humanities’ which turns out to be the sort cross curricular subject teaching that Michael Gove professes to loathe.

But the important information; how much money they are getting, their funding agreements, governance and  admissions arrangements are still hidden from view. Behind all the bluster about Latin lessons and good manners, the same serious points that prompted my local judicial review remain.

How were these beneficiaries of our money chosen? Did other local parents get a say in whether they wanted or needed a new school, in who should run it, whether it should have a faith, an experimental curriculum or a governing body made up of a group of friends?

Freedom of Information requests on free schools from organisations like The Other Tax Payers Alliance, have been stonewalled, and are grinding their way through the Information Commissioner’s office.

But any decision to allow one group to establish a new school in an area will undoubtedly impact on other local parents. The Department for Education responds to FOI requests by saying information will be released in due course. Why not just release it now then so that if a new school is in the pipeline, every local parent can have a say in what its ethos, curriculum and admissions policy should be.

It Is hard to say whether the judicial review challenge will be used again – if the promoters of free schools are handing out contracts to profit making  providers ,  some sort of  competitive procurement process must be used, and that may be a legal route to watch.

But in the end this isn’t really about government transparency or legality, it is about parent choice and how it is exercised fairly so that some parents don’t benefit handsomely at the expense of all the rest.

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