Free schools have been getting a bad press recently. The headmistress of a new primary in Pimlico resigned unexpectedly, a secondary in Derby was judged “dysfunctional” by Ofsted and another in Bradford stands accused of financial mismanagement. Does this prove that free schools are a “dangerous ideological experiment” that is “reaching the end of its natural life” as Labour’s new Shadow Education Secretary claims?
To answer that question I think we need to unpack Tristram Hunt’s phrase.
First, let’s deal with the “dangerous” bit. Are the 174 free schools that have opened so far more likely to fail pupils than the average taxpayer-funded school? Not according to the regulator. Yes, there have been some high-profile problems, but 72 per cent of the free schools inspected by Ofsted have been judged “good” or “outstanding”, which is above average. To date, only two of the 174 have been rated “inadequate”.
Does Hunt mean they’re dangerous because they employ unqualified teachers? The headmistress who resigned from Pimlico Primary School didn’t have a postgraduate certificate of education (PGCE) when she was appointed (though she had one by the time the school opened) and much has been made of that by opponents of free schools. But a person doesn’t have to have a PGCE to be qualified to teach. Brighton College employs 39 teachers without formal teaching qualifications, including the headmaster, and that didn’t stop it being named the 2013 Independent School of the Year by the Sunday Times. On the other hand, possessing a PGCE doesn’t automatically make you a good teacher. According to a 2010 Panorama investigation, 15,000 teachers currently employed in state schools are “incompetent”. So it’s doubtful that unqualified teachers are any more dangerous than qualified ones.
The second part of Hunt’s phrase is the word “ideological” and on the face of it that’s not true either. Let’s not forget that support for free schools isn’t confined to the two parties that comprise the Coalition. Several prominent members of the Labour Party have voiced their enthusiasm too, including Tony Blair, Andrew Adonis and — bizarrely — Tristram Hunt. Forty-eight hours before condemning free schools as a “dangerous ideological experiment”, he told the Mail on Sunday he wanted to put “rocket boosters” under the policy.
Nevertheless, it’s true that defenders of free schools are, for the most part, right-of-centre and one of the reasons they’re attracted to the policy is because it involves a transfer of power from the state to voluntary associations. Reducing the size of the state is a guiding principle of conservative politics and, in that sense, the free schools policy is ideological.
But if that’s all that’s meant by the charge, the policy’s opponents are scarcely less culpable. After all, they’re usually on the left of the Labour Party — often trade union leaders — and their hostility to free schools stems from their belief in the state as an instrument of social justice. In particular, they believe the state should be the sole provider of public services. That isn’t just because they think state-run institutions are less likely to fail (see above), but because they believe education, like health and social security, is part of the commonweal and, as such, should be the exclusive preserve of the state. They object to free schools for the same reason they object to any dilution of top-down control in the public sector, whether the NHS or the Prison Service. It’s a violation of what they hold to be a sacred principle and many of the policy’s most vociferous opponents were also against New Labour’s public service reforms. Such quasi-religious devotion to the state feels at least as ideological as the support for free schools among conservatives.
However, there’s another, specific meaning of “ideological” when applied to those who support the Coalition’s education reforms. Opponents of free schools and academies frequently claim Michael Gove has a secret agenda to break up England’s public education system so it’s more susceptible to takeover by profit-making corporations — and Hunt has referred to “the sinister ambitions of the government to pursue a for-profit model in our schooling system”. In this doomsday scenario, which is often coupled with the name of Rupert Murdoch, Gove’s talk of wanting all parents to have access to a good local school is dismissed as a rhetorical smokescreen.
Not surprisingly, there’s little evidence to support this conspiracy theory. It was the last government that made it possible for commercial organisations like Tribal and NordAnglia to enter the public education sector — allowing them to carry out Ofsted inspections and run school improvement services, for instance — not the present one. Since 2010, more than half of England’s taxpayer-funded secondary schools have become academies but not a single one is owned by a for-profit company. They’re all owned by charitable trusts, as are the 174 free schools. Those trusts cannot become for-profit companies and hold on to their assets, such as school buildings and playing fields, without running afoul of charity law. If Michael Gove is planning to serve up state schools on a platter to Rupert Murdoch he’s going a funny way about it.
There’s one final meaning of “ideological” and that’s when it’s contrasted with “evidence-based” to imply the advocates of a particular policy are bug-eyed zealots with no regard for social science research. (Hunt has complained about “a zealot’s approach to school reform”.) But in the case of free schools, both sides claim international evidence supports their point of view, most of it drawn from Sweden.
Opponents point to Sweden’s decline in the OECD’s Pisa league tables since free schools were introduced in 1992, citing this as proof that increased competition between taxpayer-funded schools hasn’t raised standards. But this is far from conclusive since there’s no way of knowing whether Swedish schoolchildren would have fared better or worse in the absence of free schools.
Defenders of the policy cite the work of Anders Bohlmark and Mikael Lindahl, two social scientists who’ve shown that free schools have had a positive impact on overall attainment in Sweden. Not only are test scores above average in free schools, but they have a beneficial effect on results at neighbouring municipal schools too.
So free schools aren’t dangerous and they’re not ideological in the sense that there’s no evidence that the policy works. But are they an “experiment”?
I think they are but that’s not a reason to oppose them. On the contrary, one of the strongest arguments in favour of free schools is that they provide a laboratory space where teachers can try out new things — the research and development wing of state education, if you like. By allowing free schools to innovate and experiment — and monitoring the results — we can eventually discover more effective ways of teaching and learning and, by extension, drive up standards across the board.
To illustrate this point, it might be helpful to describe the secondary school I helped set up in Hammersmith.
The founding principle of the West London Free School (WLFS) is that all children can benefit from a classical liberal education, regardless of background or ability. What that means in practice is that all the pupils are expected to study a core of academic subjects — English language, English literature, maths, history, geography, divinity, Latin, French, physics, chemistry and biology — complemented by plenty of art, music, drama and competitive sport. Our aim is to provide our pupils with a storehouse of core knowledge in a range of traditional subjects — the best that has been thought and written — so they end up with the social capital to succeed, both in their schooling and beyond. We hope that pupils will leave the WLFS able to participate in the conversations mankind has been having with itself for thousands of years about the universe and man’s place in it. We also hope they’ll exhibit the virtues that are traditionally associated with a classical liberal education: well-informed, honest, courteous, industrious, self-disciplined, self-reliant, resilient, tenacious, public-spirited and open hearted.
This is clearly an experiment — and an ambitious one. We describe the WLFS as “a grammar school for all” (Harold Wilson’s original definition of a comprehensive), but can all children really access a grammar school curriculum? The conventional wisdom, even in high-performing comprehensives, is that a classical liberal education is only suitable for children in the top half of the ability spectrum, with less-able children (usually those from more deprived backgrounds) being steered towards a combination of academic, technical and vocational subjects. It is that shibboleth that the founders of the WLFS have rejected. We believe that, with the right support, it’s possible for all children to complete their secondary education with a storehouse of general knowledge — and we draw inspiration from a number of schools that manage this successfully, such as Mossbourne in Hackney and the Renaissance Arts Academy in Los Angeles.
Obviously, it’s too early to say whether our experiment has been a success. We’re only just over two years old. But the early signs are good. To begin with, our classical liberal formula is popular with local parents. The WLFS had ten applicants for every place this year, making it one of the most oversubscribed state secondaries in England. Not just white, middle-class applicants, either. Thirty per cent of our current Year Sevens are on free school meals and between 30 and 40 per cent of all our pupils are black, Asian or minority ethnic. Roughly 25 per cent of the pupils have special educational needs (SEN) and 50 per cent have English as an additional language. So a fairly typical mix for an inner-London comprehensive and, so far, there’s no evidence that any of them are struggling with our ethos or curriculum, including those with statements of SEN. (We employ a full-time SEN co-ordinator.) The school was inspected by Ofsted earlier this year and rated “good with outstanding features”. We hope to get the top grade next time.
When I’ve made this argument before, the standard objection is that it’s not fair to treat children as guinea pigs in a laboratory. We can’t take a risk with their education because if something goes wrong they won’t get a second chance.
The problem with this is it assumes the risk of sending your child to the local community school is lower than sending him or her to a free school. Not true-419 schools in England were rated “inadequate” by Ofsted last year; only one of them was a free school. Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, estimated that in 2012 at least two million English children were attending schools that were either inadequate or required improvement, which might explain why a fifth of school leavers are functionally illiterate and functionally innumerate. That was the conclusion of a government-funded study carried out by Sheffield University in 2009. Professor Greg Brooks, one of the study’s authors, said this had been true for at least 20 years.
What defenders of the status quo fail to acknowledge is that a significant percentage of comprehensives aren’t fit for purpose. It’s not the risk of children being let down by free schools they should worry about, but the certainty they will be let down if they attend a failing community school. Earlier this year, the OECD found that young adults in England rank 22nd out of 24 nations for literacy and 21st for numeracy, behind Estonia, Poland and Slovakia. Thanks to the last government’s failure to address this systemic failure, England is the only country in the OECD survey where results are going backwards, with 16-24-year-olds performing worse than the older cohorts. Inevitably, the poorest performers are those on the lowest incomes — precisely the people whom the critics of Gove’s reforms say they want to protect.
It’s too early to say whether children at free schools will do better than their equivalents at community schools. The real test will be in 2016, when the first cohort of children to be admitted to the WLFS and the other free schools that opened in 2011 will get their GCSE results. I’m optimistic they will, and that the schools will pass other tests, too, such as lowering the attainment gap between children on free school meals and their peers. At the WLFS, the group that outperforms all others in standardised tests are girls on free school meals. This suggests that free schools are not a “dangerous ideological experiment”, but a vital lifeline for children who might otherwise be submerged in poverty. As someone with a PhD from Oxford, Tristram Hunt should welcome this experiment rather than threatening to end it.