Free and easy?

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The case for free schools and looks at what it takes to set one up

Education is never really out of the political spotlight but since the election of the Coalition Government in 2010, and the introduction of the free schools policy, it has proved to be especially controversial.

Free schools are all-ability, non-profit making schools that are funded by the UK taxpayer; they are free to attend and are outside of local authority control. They can be set up by parents, faith groups, charities, businesses or, indeed, anyone with an interest in education. They have the flexibility to innovate; they must provide a broad and balanced curriculum including the core subjects like maths, English and science, and take account of SEN and the SEND Code of Practice, but they don’t have to follow the National Curriculum. 24 free schools opened in 2011 and a further 55 have so far been approved for opening in 2012.

The idea is to give parents greater choice and diversity over the schools in their local area. Groups have to demonstrate that there is parental demand for a new school, via signed petitions expressing a desire to send their child there, although there are no formal restrictions on where the Government can approve a new school to be set up.

We’ve all heard the stories of parents who can’t get their children into a good local school, or who have been subject to the postcode lottery; many of us will, no doubt, have friends and family who have agonised over where and when to move, often before their children have even been born.  Some also look at paying private school fees. However, a significant minority don’t have these options.

Free schools give people the chance to build a good local school which has the freedom to cater for children’s needs, providing the right curriculum, the right approach to teaching and the right ethos, in areas where more and better schools are needed.

Research from other countries shows that giving greater freedom to schools works. The United States of America has the charter schools programme: state-funded schools, usually smaller than other US public schools, which enjoy greater autonomy than other US public schools. Free schools have also existed in Sweden since the early 1990s and now make up around a fifth of all state schools in the country.

Schools have to consider how to meet the needs of all pupils.Giving people the ability to set up schools which cater for specific local needs, coupled with employing inspirational teachers and leaders, can have a huge impact on academic performance and the numbers of students staying on in education. These schools are normally set up in areas where there are high levels of deprivation. One of the most successful chains of charter schools in the United States is the Knowledge is Power Programme schools (KIPP). Nationally, more than 85 per cent of KIPP students have gone on to college despite over 80 per cent of students coming from low-income families.

Although outside of local authority control, free schools in this country are still subject to the normal Ofsted inspections and performance measures. Most importantly, as with all schools, if they aren’t serving their community effectively, then they won’t survive – they can be closed down if they underperform or if they have insufficient pupils to be financially viable.

So why all the controversy?

Supporters of free schools believe that they give parents more choice in the type of education their children receive, and help them to make sure that children get the best possible opportunities to become fully rounded individuals who can flourish in later life.

An example of one of the approaches adopted by some free schools is a longer school day, where children receive an in-depth education in core subjects like English, maths and science whilst also having compulsory extra-curricular activities which develop their full skill-sets. These arrangements are not always undertaken in the typical classroom style; for example, some schools may have days when exercises along the lines of the TV programme The Apprentice are carried out. Not all children learn in the same way and many supporters of free schools believe that this simple point needs to be better reflected in how schools organise their learners’ school experience.

Critics, on the other hand, argue that these schemes will only benefit middle-class parents, who have the time to dedicate to setting up a school, and that this scheme diverts money away from existing schools. The National Union of Teachers has warned that the free schools policy would “fuel social segregation and undermine local democracy” and that free schools are neither wanted nor needed. The Union’s conclusions are based on a survey it commissioned YouGov to produce of the opinions of one thousand parents.

Indeed, a number of the first wave of schools which opened in 2011 have received criticism because the need for the school hasn’t been acute; that is, providing schools in urban and rural areas where there’s a real need to improve the life chances of young people in communities, where socio-economic deprivation is at its most challenging and where opportunities to access a high quality education have been marginalised because of poor social mobility and a lack of strong educational leadership.

There are, undoubtedly, many outstanding state schools but too often there is inconsistency in terms of quality of leadership and delivering high achievement for all pupils; so there is a need for schools that focus on recruiting outstanding leaders and teachers. Some of this is about making sure that teachers have the time and capacity to be the best they can. A school could, for example, ensure that teachers only have a 60 per cent teaching timetable, rather than the normal 90 per cent, which means they would have more time to prepare for lessons, learn from colleagues and others, and support those children who need more attention, including those with SEN.

There is also a fear that if free schools start to be seen as symbols of success, those schools remaining under the local authority will be seen as second best. However, many supporters of a robust education system for all might argue that introducing competition can only help the overall development of all students and, consequently, the UK in terms of its future workforce.

Free schools and SEN

The DfE are this year allowing groups for the first time to set up special free schools; so far, three special schools and five alternative provision schools have been approved. Special schools have been set up by groups wanting to improve state education provision and choice for families and children with SEN and disabilities. Alternative provision free schools are aimed at giving more children who wouldn’t receive the right education in a mainstream school the chance to get a good education.

All free schools have to follow the SEND Code of Practice and those that are set up to fulfil their true purpose will address the inclusion agenda by the very nature of the fact that they will offer a truly comprehensive provision. These schools will have to consider how best to do this, which may be, as mentioned earlier, by giving teachers more time to plan engaging and high-quality lessons that engage students with SEN. It could  also be about ensuring that certain staff members have a specific role that allows students to have more one to one support from staff who really know and understand their needs; students with SEN would then have support to focus on personal development needs, and literacy and numeracy needs, so they can engage in the rest of the curriculum.

Thinking of opening a free school?

If none of this puts you off and you’re thinking of setting up a free school, a real passion for making sure children get an excellent education is a must. Getting approval is not an easy process and you need to be dedicated to the cause; it’s not true to say that the Government gives you the money and just lets you get on with it. It’s a lengthy and very time-consuming process involving, at the start, a very detailed application form which covers a whole range of areas including your vision, curriculum plan, budget, staffing and marketing, to name just a few areas. Application forms from existing free schools groups have ranged from 150 pages to over 500 pages, as you need to go into a huge amount of detail. Applicants have to undertake a wide range of research into needs and best practice, and into the mechanics of how to make their ideas work in the real world; these obviously need to be underpinned by solid evidence placed in local, national and global contexts.

Then there are interviews to test your plans and assess whether you have the capacity and capability to make a free school work. Making sure that you have the right mix of people to make it happen is crucial. Obviously, it needs a huge amount of educational expertise but you also need to think about a much broader range of skills, including human resources, legal, property, ICT, finance and communications.

It is not something to take on lightly but I certainly believe that, as educationalists, we should all have the same core purpose: to provide the very best quality of education for every child in every setting.  Free schools are one way of achieving this crucial aim for young people in areas of need and so they should, I believe, be embraced as useful additions to our education system.

Further information

Lee Faith is the new Head of the Greenwich Free School which is due to open in September 2012:
www.greenwichfreeschool.co.uk

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