Will free schools succeed in Britain?
Michael Gove is not a man for standing still. Barely a day passes by without him meddling in some way or other, for better or worse, in our education system. It is however the creation of the free schools movement that will surely come to define his time as education secretary so as the first wave of such schools open up this week, what sort of impact are they likely to have?
Gove has been unequivocal in his belief that free schools will have a profoundly positive impact on the state of education in our country. He claims that not only will the creation of such schools lead to greater choice for parents and pupils but that they will also be pivotal in “closing the attainment gap” in what he claims is “one of the most stratified, segregated school systems in the developed world”. These are bold claims, and ones that cannot be backed up with irrefutable evidence. Given that the chance to discuss the merits of such reforms were stymied by the bill being hastily rushed through parliament last summer, Gove has taken a huge political gamble that could well backfire.
What evidence of success Gove offers on free schools comes almost entirely from the Swedish system of independent schools (which are the Swedish equivalent to free schools, and are in fact the model which Gove and the Tories based their ideas on) that have existed since the early 1990’s. The fact that between 1991 and 2009 there was an expansion from just over 60 independent schools operating in Sweden to 709 was used to highlight the apparent success of the scheme. However, in making their case for free schools before the last election, there were certain elements of the Swedish system that the Conservatives seemed less keen to reveal.
Böhlmark and Lindahl’s major study into the effects of independent schools on the Swedish education system suggests that whilst they moderately improve educational outcomes up to about the age of 15, such advantages are so minimal that they have no impact on long-term educational outcomes (e.g. A-levels, chances of going to University etc.). Moreover, the study also claims that such advantages are reserved mainly for those already from well-educated families whilst those from poorly-educated families see almost no benefits at all. Concern has also been expressed about the concentration of independent schools in the more affluent areas of Sweden as well as the quality of teachers in such schools. Internationally, Sweden has slipped down the OECD education rankings in recent years, with below average ratings in both maths and science.
So whilst the picture in Sweden might more accurately be described as mixed at best, Gove has decided to plough on regardless in his attempt to revamp our education system. Whilst he is right in proclaiming that the introduction of free schools will lead to greater choice for parents, beyond that it is hard to see how they will achieve his other stated aim of “closing the attainment gap in one of the most stratified, segregated school systems in the developed world”.
Even the increased freedom and choice that should result from the introduction of free schools is currently limited by the way the government is implementing its strategy. Gove sold the country the free school idea on the basis that any group of parents or teachers would be free to set up and run one, and yet over 90% of applications were rejected this year. No doubt many were rejected for legitimate reasons but nevertheless it does somewhat curtail the idea of freedom that was supposedly so central to the whole idea.
Furthermore, the 24 free schools that have opened up this month will account for around 0.05% of all schoolchildren. Put another way, if you fancy sending your child to a free school, statistically you’ve got a 1 in 2000 chance of doing so right now. Of course that figure will improve as more free schools open up in subsequent years but then the capital funding of these schools starts to become an issue. It is estimated that £130 million has been spent on the establishment of this first wave of 24 schools. That figure would quickly run into billions if the government has aspirations to match the 700 or so independent schools that exist in Sweden. Are the deficit hawks in the Tory party really prepared to do away with that sort of money on an educational experiment that offers no guarantee of success?
It is Gove’s claims though that free schools will raise standards throughout the education system and close the attainment gap that looks least plausible. The theory according to free school advocates goes something like this; A free school is set up wherever there is sufficient demand. The subsequent success of that free school forces the surrounding schools to either up their own standards or face closure or a take over as the free school expands its services.
The first problem with this scenario is obvious. The success of a free school is not a given. The idea that schools that are not compelled to employ fully qualified teachers, that have no obligation to stick to the national curriculum and that may teach in rooms not fit for purpose will automatically attain standards superior to those other schools in the area, is breathtakingly arrogant.
Secondly, even if free schools do quickly rise to academic standards higher than surrounding state schools, the suggestion that this will force those state schools into raising their standards is unlikely to play out in reality. Free schools are allowed to set their own pay structures and hence in all probability will be able to attract the best teachers with the lure of higher wages. The local state schools would be powerless to respond to such moves as they work within pay structures that are imposed by the state. How then are the state schools supposed to respond to free schools if the best teachers are all flocking to those schools?
So if local state schools can’t respond to the raising of educational standards by a new free school, then in the quasi-market scenario they face two options. It either closes or gets taken over, most likely by whoever happens to be providing the free school within that area. The prospect of school closures appeals neither to the community involved or the local politician who will face the wrath of the community so a takeover would be the preferable option. But herein lies another problem. As many involved in the Swedish system have been quick to point out, if there is no profit to be made from expanding then providers of free schools have much less motive to takeover failing schools.
Mr Gove is said to have no qualms in allowing for-profit providers into our education system but after coming under pressure from Nick Clegg he has explicitly ruled this option out. So as it currently stands, the providers for free schools are either parents who are understandably interested only in the creation of a school to provide a good education for their children, faith groups who wish to install their religious beliefs on young students, or teachers pursuing new forms of pedagogy. None of these groups are likely to show much interest in rescuing failing schools around them even if their new free school directly contributed to the demise of those schools.
Introduce a profit motive and that may all change but then you’ve got to ask the following question. If the free schools programme can only succeed if education is reduced to a profit-making business, is it really a policy worth pursuing?