Free Schools

Dawn Foster

On 22 March 2012, David Cameron visited Kings Science Academy in Bradford, one of the first wave of 24 free schools that opened in September 2011. You can see footage of his visit online. The prime minister walks through the playground, hampered by children in grey blazers, with the school’s headteacher, Sajid Raza, at his elbow. Cameron wrote to Raza a few days later to thank him, and added a handwritten note in blue ink: ‘I was really impressed and have told Michael Gove about your work. Keep it up!’

Less than two years later, police went to the school and arrested Raza. On 6 March this year, he was charged with nine counts of fraud in relation to the school’s finances: three offences of fraud by abuse of position, three offences of false accounting, two offences of obtaining a money transfer by deception, and one offence of fraud by false representation. A week later, the school’s former director of finance, Daud Khan, and Shabana Hussain, Raza’s sister and a former head of department, were also charged.

Concerns had been raised about the school’s finances by anonymous whistleblowers. An investigation was undertaken by the Education Funding Agency; in October 2013 its report was leaked to the media. It found that of the £182,933 grant paid to the school, only £19,872 could be corroborated by the school’s accounts. Cash-book payments indicated that £76,933 had not been used for its intended purpose. During its first year the school apparently had no chair of governors, despite legal stipulations. But the school prospectus listed Alan Lewis, a former deputy chair of the Conservative Party, as its ‘executive patron’, and the leaked EFA report concludes that he had been the ‘chair of governors between September 2011 and October 2012’. Lewis also rented the land to the school, at a cost of £295,960 a year, for a twenty-year period. When the MP for Bradford East, David Ward, put in a request to see the tendering and valuation process for the deal, and asked whether a cheaper local authority site could not be found, he was rebuffed on grounds of ‘commercial sensitivity’. He put in further requests after Raza had been arrested, but was refused once more, owing to ‘ongoing police investigations’. Ward has made continual attempts, locally and in Parliament, to find answers to the numerous questions he has about the school, but has been blocked repeatedly.

EFA’s final report on financial irregularities at Kings noted that because it had opened as a free school it ‘did not have, as many academy converters do, access to experienced staff, and existing control frameworks and processes’. In order to open a free school, a group of parents, a religious group, a charity or a chain of academies has to make an application giving details of local support for the school, and the likely demand for places. There is no requirement that free school founders have experience of running a school, and no assessment is made as to whether the prospective founders will be able to meet the legally required standards of school governance.

In effect, this means that any group of parents who believe there is a need for a new school can club together and apply to set it up. Successful applicants have argued that there is a local need for Steiner schools, German schools, and schools that follow Montessori or Maharishi principles. An application to set up a Scientology school was unsuccessful. The ‘need’ for a new school isn’t necessarily based on an assessment of the number of school places available in a given area, but on parental choice and a clamouring for individualism in state-funded education. Petitions often suffice. One academy chain putting forward an application to start a free school in Doncaster offered potential pupils £500 to sign up: other free schools have offered iPads and bicycles.

The Discovery New School in Crawley, a primary, was another in the first wave of 24 free schools. Set up in a Grade II listed building, it aimed to teach 16 pupils per year according to Montessori principles: play-based learning, led by pupils. An Ofsted inspection in May 2013 found every aspect of the school’s performance, except the behaviour and safety of the children, to be inadequate. ‘Too many pupils,’ it warned, ‘are in danger of leaving the school without being able to read and write properly.’ After another Ofsted inspection in September 2013 showed no improvement, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for schools, Lord Nash, wrote to tell the school its funding arrangement would cease and that it must close.

The Discovery New School was the first closure, but not the most notorious. The Al-Madinah School in Derby was forced to close its secondary school when Ofsted, following an inspection brought forward after complaints were made to the Department for Education, called it ‘dysfunctional’. The school had not had adequate support or supervision, Ofsted reported, and its leadership – the school was run by community leaders – lacked the necessary experience. The school was unable to say how many disabled children it had enrolled, and since registers weren’t properly kept, couldn’t account for the whereabouts of its pupils: if children didn’t turn up, the alarm wouldn’t be raised until they failed to arrive home hours later. There were financial irregularities too, and the school was operating on an interim budget. ‘The school is in chaos,’ the Ofsted report concluded. Lord Nash wrote another letter.

The thinking behind free schools is market-based: open several schools in an area, creating a surplus need; parents will send their children to the best schools, and the rest will either improve or close. ‘There are people on the right,’ Fiona Millar, a journalist and education campaigner, told me, ‘who have always wanted to experiment with a pure choice model, where you create surplus supply to give parents choice then you force poor providers out of the market.’ But forcing schools to close by creating surplus demand next door is not the same as opening two coffeeshops and shrugging when one closes because the cappuccinos weren’t up to scratch. The emotional upheaval when children move schools isn’t negligible. And supply in the education market isn’t elastic. The introduction of free schools can be seen as the latest step in the gradual privatisation of state provision. To allow the ‘need’ for a free school is to imply that the local authority schools nearby aren’t good enough: the model supposes that the free school will win out when a choice is made, that the school run by a private company will thrive while the local authority school closes its doors.

Since the passing of the Academies Act in 2010, 255 free schools have opened in England; approval has been given to 156 more. The Education Act 2011 stipulated that new schools could open only if they were free schools or academies; a local authority is no longer allowed to open and run a new school unless there is a deficit of school places and no one has bid to open an academy or a free school. For the foreseeable future, free schools and academies will swell in number, and local-authority-controlled state schools will dwindle.

The free school policy was first introduced in Sweden in 1992. About a fifth of the country’s children are now enrolled in friskolor. The private companies that make a business of school provision in Sweden often advertise for ‘independent’ pupils: they don’t want those with lower grades or special educational needs. It isn’t only that bright pupils are likely to get good grades, thus boosting the school’s reputation, but also that good students require less teaching time. Some free schools run the day in shifts: some students come in the morning, some in the afternoon, making it possible for schools to recruit twice as many pupils as their buildings can hold, doubling the numbers enrolled without increasing teaching costs. In essence, the free schools scoop up the children it’s cheapest and easiest to teach: the municipal schools are left with pupils who require more support and are less likely to succeed. In Sweden, the more affluent population is concentrated in city centres; the suburbs are occupied by the poorest, migrants especially. The free schools tend to gather in city centres. A sure way to decrease a country’s overall educational attainment is to increase social segregation and inequality: free schools do precisely that.

The Programme for International Student Assessment ranks countries in the developed world according to their 15-year-olds’ educational performance. In 2000, Sweden was 15th in the rankings for mathematics. In the latest results, issued in December 2013, it was 38th, behind the UK and the US and below the OECD average. Some politicians blamed stagnant teachers’ salaries; others claimed the decline was fallout from the period when the Social Democrats were in charge; many blamed free schools. But everyone had to accept that the free school revolution had resulted in both greater inequality and lower overall academic achievement. The government was forced to impose minimum standards on free schools, including a duty to provide careers advice, a school hall and playing fields. The withdrawal of several private contractors exposed the precariousness of the free school infrastructure: allowing companies to run schools for profit does nothing to persuade them to stay when profits dry up. In June 2013, JB Education, one of the biggest providers of free schools in Sweden, declared bankruptcy. The company, whose schools were educating more than ten thousand students across Sweden, planned to sell 19 of its schools and close the remaining four. The timing of the announcement, shortly before the start of the new school year, meant families had to scramble to find alternative places for their children – and this wasn’t always easy, partly because in many towns, municipal schools had closed because of the competition from free schools.

Until JB Education’s collapse, Michael Gove was in the habit of invoking Sweden as the inspiration for the free school movement in the UK; comparisons to a small, socially liberal country helped fend off objections from the left. After 2013, however, these references vanished, replaced by a focus on charter schools in the US, which operate on the same principles as free schools. But charter schools too are hit and miss. When they work, they can work very well – but that is true of any school. Proponents of the free school system, and of the charter model, point to places where it has worked, such as Washington DC, and tend to avoid mentioning those where it hasn’t, such as Arkansas.

Unlike local authority schools and academies, free schools can employ teachers without teaching qualifications and, like academies, they can ignore national agreements on pay and conditions. Stem Academy Tech City near the Angel in London came to attention last year when some of its staff went on strike after the school announced its intention to introduce zero-hours contracts for teachers. The enormous amount of time teachers spend marking and planning lessons would go unpaid, and they would only receive a salary at all during term-time. Eventually Stem Academy reached an agreement with the teachers, but that wasn’t the end of trouble at the school. An Ofsted inspection in January rated its performance, including the quality of its leadership, as Inadequate – the lowest grade. The Department for Education had approved an application by Stem Academy to start another free school in Croydon. Following the Ofsted report, Stem announced it was withdrawing the application in order to focus on the Islington school.

Relations between Ofsted and Conservative educationalists have grown bitter during the coalition years. The first Ofsted reports on many of the free schools are damning; promoters of choice and the market in education criticise inspectors for scrutinising the schools too soon after opening. But three years is more than half a child’s secondary education. That so many of the first free schools have failed, and so spectacularly, has panicked their proponents. After much departmental foot-dragging over Kings and Al-Madinah, Nicky Morgan, Gove’s replacement as education secretary, announced suddenly in February that she was closing Durham Free School. Scores of parents expressed their dismay. David Ward, too, received a torrent of correspondence from parents of children at Kings, asking why the school was being singled out for investigation, and why its Ofsted report had been so damning. Perhaps this is unsurprising. Why would you, as a parent, accept the opinion of an Ofsted inspector who had done no more than sit in on a few lessons? ‘I always thought that the government was being naive in thinking the market would ensure only the best schools survive,’ Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the teachers’ union ATL, said to me, ‘because I think that parents, unless things are terrible, judge a school’s quality by their child’s safety and happiness. Those are two very important things, which market theory never takes into account.’

Since the 1980s, ‘parental choice’ has mattered above all else when it comes to arrangements for the education of children, and one of the consequences has been an erosion of confidence in education professionals. If educational theory and experience are valued no more highly than what parents want, does it matter if teachers are unqualified? And if parents don’t want their children taught the standard curriculum, shouldn’t their wishes be respected? It is this sort of logic that underpins the support for free schools; 28 per cent of them have opened in areas where there is no surplus demand for places. But prioritising choice over educational outcomes exposes the tension in the free school project. If the parents of the pupils at the Discovery New School were happy with their children’s education, even though many of them couldn’t read properly, should the school have been closed or not?

According to a 2013 study by the Sutton Trust, a third of professional parents admitted they had moved to a better area for their children’s schooling, and 8 per cent to a specific catchment area. Choice is a predominantly middle-class preoccupation, and becomes self-fulfilling: parents see their children’s good grades not as a foregone conclusion – the result of better nutrition, access to extracurricular activities and greater cultural capital – but as the result of their striving to secure places at the best school. Parents who have enough time and mental energy to set about opening a free school will also be disproportionately middle class. The unspoken subtext of complaints about ‘rough schools’ – the reason middle-class parents make such efforts to move for the sake of their children’s education – is that they are in low-income areas. Free schools are permitted to select up to 10 per cent of children by aptitude for certain subjects, which amounts to privileged access for middle-class children by the back door: it will be difficult for a child to demonstrate musical aptitude, for instance, unless her parents pay for her to have extracurricular lessons. And yet the evidence shows that free schools and academies perform no better or worse than local authority schools: for the most part, schools barely alter children’s life-chances. Their socioeconomic backgrounds, and the degree to which they are loved and stimulated during the first few years of their life, have a vastly greater influence on their future than the school they attend.

Though free schools were sold as the apotheosis of parental choice, only a few have been opened and run by community groups. Most of them are run instead by ‘approved sponsors’, a group of companies and chains that have been given permission to run free schools and academies. It is impossible to find out how the companies were selected and approved; it is also difficult to find out who is applying to be on the list. Laura McInerney, an education journalist and former teacher, submitted several freedom of information requests to the Department for Education, asking civil servants to release all the applications to form free schools they had received, along with the letters advising applicants of the DfE’s decisions. The DfE rejected her requests. McInerney complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office, which ruled in her favour. The DfE appealed to a First Tier Tribunal, describing her claim as ‘vexatious’ and arguing that the expense of meeting her request would be too high, and that disclosure would jeopardise commercial sensitivities. McInerney lost the appeal. ‘When it comes to schools the government need to remember they’re asking people to hand over their children for six hours each day and a chunk of their wages to pay for it,’ she told me. ‘Why should anyone do that and not at least expect to know who is using that money and time, and how they are using it?’

The cost of introducing a new school category, and with so little transparency, during a period of austerity has not escaped the notice of educationalists. ‘It’s a complete waste of taxpayers’ money,’ Bousted said. ‘And money we don’t have, apparently. So it becomes a vanity project.’ The new Harris Westminster Sixth Form was criticised by Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, after it emerged that the free school, with a set-up budget of £45 million, or £90,000 per pupil, would be the most expensive school in the UK. In its initial estimates of the budget for free schools, the DfE failed to account for the capital costs of land for schools. Land values in London and the South-East, where almost 50 per cent of free schools have been established, have rocketed over the past decade, so the capital expenditure on land for free schools is twice the initial projection. Building new schools in the hope that the competition will whip existing schools into shape makes no financial sense; much better to change the leadership in failing schools and spend more to improve existing school buildings.

In a report from May 2014, the Public Accounts Committee noted that £1.1 billion had been spent on free schools up to March 2014, of which £700 million was for land and buildings; £241 million had been spent in areas with no shortage of school places. While 87 per cent of primary places created were in places of need, only 19 per cent of secondary places were. The committee worried about the lack of transparency over free school applications: the DfE, it said, ‘was unable to give us a consistent explanation of how its decision-making process leads to certain applications’ approval and others’ rejection, and how this represents value for money’.

As with the NHS, the slow creep of privatisation in education happens below the surface. ‘There is this group of people,’ Millar explains, ‘who think England will get for-profit schools, and they want to be there at the beginning of it, because it’s a lucrative business once you get chains of schools.’ The money isn’t so much in running the schools themselves as in the opportunities it presents for doing other sorts of business. A chain might develop its own IT system to run its schools, for example, then license it out to other businesses. Or it might go into property management, like Greg Martin of the Durand Academy Trust (Jenny Turner writes about his exploits on p.10).

When Ofsted finds that a local authority school is failing, the school is taken over by an academy chain. When a converted academy is found to be failing, it doesn’t return to local authority status: it is handed on to a different academy chain. It’s a one-way street: theoretically, if standards slip, every school in the country could become an academy. Kings Science Academy has now been taken over by Dixons, a six-school academy chain, and a new head has been appointed. Sajid Raza’s trial has been set for June next year. Two of the larger academy chains are Ark, which already has three free schools and has plans for seven more, and Harris, which already has eight (including the £45 million school in Westminster) and permission to open six more. An EFA report in 2013 expressed concerns about the ‘extravagant expenses’ of E-Act, another large academy chain, and worried that the boundaries between it and its money-making subsidiary, E-Act Enterprises Limited (EEL), were blurred: there was ‘a culture involving prestige venues, large drinks bills, business lunches and first-class travel, all funded from public monies’. Until recently, E-Act had wild ambitions to open two hundred more academies and fifty free schools. Since the EFA report, prompted by former staff and whistleblowers, the director general has resigned and it is ‘regrouping’.

Currently, 8.3 million children in England are in primary or secondary education; only 580,000 of them are in private schools. That’s 7 per cent, a proportion that has remained unchanged for decades. The real change is the slow, quiet shift from local authority schools to academies and free schools: from schools run directly by councils and the state, to schools run by outsourced contractors. Between January 2013 and January 2014, 400,000 children made this move, as 1115 new free schools and academies sprang up. David Cameron has pledged to open five hundred new free schools by 2020 if he is re-elected: that’s 270,000 new places in new schools. The shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, remarked that this would mean more schools in places where they aren’t needed. He is missing the point: schools will lose out, but they won’t be free schools.