No educational rationale for free schools

Education Secretary Michael Gove claims that his policies are: “Policies aimed at the Gateshead mum a no nonsense working class woman passionate about her kids. Passionate enough to set up a massive comprehensive, with 2,500 feral children on a depressed sink estate.” His words in 2009 not mine!

However, as the local MP for Gateshead, having previously spent 27 years as a local councillor, I would suggest that the MP for Surrey Heath has very little understanding of the concerns and needs of Gateshead mums, dads or pupils and even less understanding of the place that is Gateshead.

Following media coverage of scandals in free schools, I secured a debate in the Commons. My aim was to highlight the gross unfairness of this government’s policy.

Free schools are autonomous, lacking local accountability to ensure they have adequate and well rounded governance. Free Schools can, potentially also have negative impacts on other local schools, drawing away pupils and undermining their financial viability.

Far from filling gaps or challenging under achievement, many free schools have been established in areas without any excess demand for places or in competition with failing schools often the reverse is true with several being established where other existing provision is good or even outstanding.

Admissions policies adopted by many free schools are opaque or, even worse, deliberately exclusive. In short, free schools lack accountability, are divisive and do little, if anything to improve standards. They have also now on a few occasions fallen short on the way they spend the resources of the public purse

The Government have allocated £1.7 billion of building capital funding to free schools, a third of the total budget for new school places in England, yet there are currently only 174 free schools and 24,000 other schools full of our children many of which are in need of urgent maintenance or renewal.

In revenue terms, the majority of free schools have been established with generous start up grants and amounts of money per child that most schools could only dream about.

This of course comes at a real cost to the millions of children that we all want to prepare for life and work.

Yet, despite the government’s generosity to free schools, local authorities are deliberately excluded from oversight and other organisations with oversight duties such as Ofsted or the Education Funding Agency do not yet have the resources to do it effectively.

Failures have so far only come to light thanks to whistleblowers inside the schools. Consequentially, many suffer from a catalogue of problems, mainly through lack of good governance.

It simply can’t be right when one free school’s own head teacher had to turn whistleblower to expose the lack of financial ethics and a slide in standards. Not surprisingly the school was branded as “dysfunctional and inadequate”. Ofsted lamented the “limited knowledge and experience” of the governing body and the fact that teachers lacked proper skills to deliver a quality education.

The Government like to stress the importance of the financial expertise in free schools but perversely seem have little concern about the expertise, standards or professional qualifications of the teaching staff.

If this government, as it claims, is truly concerned about standards surely we can’t just rely on whistleblowers to expose failure, surely local authority education officers are better placed to uncover such short comings.

Mr Gove needs to act now to reassure the public. Local authorities should be given at least a temporary ability to observe and where necessary intervene because of the concerns already raised in three of the 174 free schools.

The debacle has lifted the curtain on the fallacies and frailties of the programme. The Government simply do not have a clue about how many other free schools are in a similar situation.

Robust and independent oversight of schools allows them to flourish, ensure children receive good-quality education and that public money is spent in the best way.

All parents and pupils should be able to trust their school, and free schools are no exception. We cannot afford the financial and educational costs of this ideologically experiment. There is really no educational rationale for the existence of those schools.

Newcastle Chronicle and Journal

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