Education Mar 30 2011

How to avoid the predictable failures of free schools – give the local authority a role

An interesting little booklet has just been published. Called ‘The Six Predictable Failures of Free Schools and how to avoid them’. It is written by teacher Laura McInerney, who occasionally comments on this site, and published by LKMco, a consultancy run by McInerney and fellow teacher Loic Menzies.  It injects a note of realism into the overly ideological (and idealistic) free schools debate but also leaves some questions unanswered.

Just to run through the key points made in the pamphlet:

Free school promoters often underestimate the complexity of setting up a new school.

  • They want to get their schools up and running too quickly, often ignoring important aspects of the setting up phase, not taking time to find the right buildings and failing to understand the economics of running a school  about which they may have made hyperbolic claims re: class size, curriculum etc.
  • They may fail to research the local context adequately.
  • They can tend to suffer from ‘feelings of superiority and uniqueness’ rather like young couples going into marriage convinced that theirs will be ‘different’ and not fail.
  • The ‘core group’ may underestimate how difficult it is to translate goals and values into practice. Conflict and power battles may arise as a result.

I enjoyed reading it. Having been a chair of governors of two different schools for over ten years, I often find myself musing about whether the free school promoters  really understand what a complex, challenging, time consuming and of course fulfilling business it is to run a school. Getting the school up and running may be the easy bit.

It is for this reason that I think it inevitable , if more care isn’t taken about the bidding and implementation process, that many free schools will end up in the hands of chains. It will become clear over time that only the chains have the necessary expertise and capacity to manage schools, as the small parent and teacher groups start to struggle. Although ironically many of the chains will be staffed by former maintained school heads and local authority officers and the schools will cease to be ‘free’ at all and become clones. Think Tesco rather than local deli in the retail business.

However McInerney is sympathetic to the aims of free school providers and has some advice which it will be interesting to see if they follow.In particular she urges promoters to do the following:

  • Build strong relationships with existing schools and local stakeholders and seek out criticism if necessary. If the new school is ‘complementary’ it should be possible to work collaboratively.
  • Try and understand the problems facing existing schools and recognise the new school may face them too.
  • Avoid the temptation’ to justify your position in the market by pointing out the flaws you perceive in other schools’.
  • Avoid self selection for leadership.
  • And allow 12 months for a property search.
  • Work on team building in advance and don’t over commit staff time.
  • Budget for everything you are promising.

The author also has a warning for policy makers – and judging by the recent re-drafting of the free school application process – DFE officials are recognising some of these issues. They should:

  • Oblige free schools to show that their service is complementary to current provision.
  • Fund free schools in addition to existing provision and protect the finances of other local schools.
  • Commission independent research into free schools setting up process.
  • Increase the detail required in applications for free schools.
  • Require a 12 month application to opening period

McInerney’s conclusion overall is that if new free schools  do not follow this advice they are more likely to fail than succeed – there is already ample evidence of how this has happened in the US charter school experiment. The Stanford Credo study and the work of US academic Seymour Sarason are used in evidence for this.

Where the pamphlet falls short is in not addressing the fundamental conflict between the notion of a ‘free’ school, that empowers individuals to do something different, unbound by central prescription and regulation, and what McInerney/Menzies advocate.

If schools are going to collaborate and be developed in tandem with other local provision why do they need to be ‘free’ at all? There are many models of autonomous schools within the maintained sector – VA , foundation , trust – that allow innovation and new models of governance and leadership while schools remain within the ‘local family’. Indeed at times the pamphlet appears to be describing something similar to the process of setting up a maintained new school within a local authority framework.

In some ways I find that heartening. The more people look at the evidence from home and abroad, the more likely it is that they will come to conclusions similar to those drawn by Laura McInerney. New schools can‘t be set up in isolation, they need to work within a local context and collaborate rather than compete with the negative aim of swiftly shutting down other local provision.

People who run schools need to be drawn from a broad base rather than be a self selecting group and the pupils in them should not have to put up with second rate buildings and facilities simply because their sponsors were in a hurry to prove they could open within a tight time scale. Moreover young people across a given area deserve to have their schools supported and invested in rather than having some ‘vanity’ projects funded at the expense of everyone else.

About six years ago Melissa Benn and I were guests at a dinner at which a very high profile academy head was also present. The discussion inevitably turned to the expansion of academies, how they would work in practice and whether they idea of independent state schools with no local government involvement in education was really feasible. At the end at the discussion, the head in question said ‘Of course in the end they (meaning ministers) will have to reinvent the local education authority or something like it’

This pamphlet inadvertently makes it clear why that will be necessary. Planning, collaboration and the pursuit of the collective, rather than individual, good, will become fashionable and indeed demanded in due course. The sooner that happens, the better.

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