Academies were designed to give the senior management of a school free control over how they wish to spend their money, focusing on areas them deem to be important.
The result? Schools gripped the Olympic Fever effectively turning into academies for sport, lack of resources in other areas of school life… and the distinct impression that, actually, you’re better off sending your kids to a regular school.
You know, just a school… Remember the old days where you went to a school that just taught properly and didn’t blow massive budgets on that all-important third sports hall? Funny, because I only slightly remember that – I got caught up in it myself.
Happily though, there’s another alternative to make your lives even more complicated: the Free School.
The idea is that these schools are funded for by the taxpayer but they are separate from Local Education Authority (LEA) control. Sounds rather similar to an Academy, doesn’t it? Well, the main difference is that existing schools who want to step into the unknown can apply to gain Academy status. For those people who want to open a new school… they can apply to be a Free School.Yes, indeed, you read that right. Anyone can file an application to create a Free School. To be more precise, parents, teachers, businesses, charities and religious groups can all collectively band together to create a Free School – they merely have to file an application with the Department for Education.
Of course, some of the more wary among us might be concerned about the religious aspect creeping into schools – Education Secretary Michael Gove has discounted the idea of fundamentalist organisations taking control of Free Schools.Generally, consortia take charge of applications and the eventual running of the schools – often with the involvement of businesses and enterprises. Enter problem number two… wouldn’t the businesses want to make a profit out of the schools? Well, they can’t be run for-profit, so at least we aren’t completely commercialising education just yet, much to the relief of parents.
Some companies are indeed paid a management fee to help operate the school, but generally the claim is that this money gets reinvested over time.
All in all, it doesn’t sound too bad. Surely businesses getting involved could bring some interesting skills and ideas into the school? Also, philanthropy is so underrated from time to time, with foundations being involved from time to time, backed by people who just want to give something back…
All very well, isn’t it… just as long as the standard of education remains high and everyone gets a good deal on their education. For one consortium, however, it appears as though their operations at at least one of their schools has been called into serious question.
Swedish company Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES) operates some 22 schools in Sweden (under a similar format) and managed to acquire a contract worth £21m to run a Suffolk school at Breckland. It was quite clever work from the school’s trust, who managed to attract a foreign investor who could theoretically make a profit on their management fee, even though the trust itself can’t make a profit out of the Free School.
This was of course rather a controversial plan – Chris Keates, a prominent teachers’ union leader, decried it by saying that education was ‘up for sale to the highest bidder.’The school was renamed IES Breckland in 2012, with the idea that it would flourish and solve the need for a secondary school in the local area. The company would be paid the contract, along with their management fee and everything would be rosy. After all, the whole reason the Free School initiative started in the first place was because of the detailed examination of the successes of Swedish education. So it can’t go wrong, can it?
Well, the Ofsted inspection has been and gone… and it makes for grim reading. So much so, the school is now being placed under special measures. The full report was released a few days after the special measures were announced – it makes for some poor reading indeed.
- All schools are graded on several categories: Achievement of Pupils, Quality of Teaching, Behaviour and Safety of Pupils and finally on Leadership and Management. IES Breckland was given the lowest rating of ‘Inadequate’ for each of these categories.
- The report claims that the teaching is inadequate, even claiming that in English students are worse than when they started at the school. Teachers are also too frequently changed, causing serious disruption.
- The school is inaccurate in its own evaluation of teaching and student attainment. Why? Because the assessment hasn’t been adequate and because there is no strategy for improvement.
- The management of teachers themselves has been described as ineffective, with targets for improvement lacking precision.
- In terms of the Governors – they have failed to ensure that safety among pupils is assured. While they have taken an interest in the topic, they have not been active enough in school’s progress. According to the report, they don’t know how well the school is actually doing.
Well, it’s a blow to the school in question, that is to put it mildly. Clearly there is some complacency in thinking that because you bring in a successful company from Sweden, it will automatically work here. Clearly this isn’t the case. Okay, so we have to remember that this is just one school and it’s at the hands of a Swedish company, not a collective of parents and teachers from the UK.
However, what it does show is that adding companies to the mix by means of effectively privatising new schools is potentially dangerous. Imagine if the company was a big corporate one which the aim of instilling a specialism, backed by the thought that it might get something out later… How much will things slide then?
This is an early warning shot that we do have to be careful with free schools. Not just that, but we have to consider if private company involvement is the right thing. Yes it’s funding, but is this a bye-product of educational cuts or is this really a solution?