Hackney schools have again achieved some of their best GCSE and A-level results to date, placing them well above average for Inner London. But Education Minister Michael Gove’s push to open free schools and convert more local schools to government-funded academies has the potential radically to alter Hackney’s education landscape. These reforms have sparked debate about the future of Hackney schools.
Since 2002 The Learning Trust, a private, not-for-profit company, has run Hackney’s education services on behalf of the council. This summer, the Trust organised a consultation with Hackney residents to establish their views on a new school in the borough. When asked whether a new school for the area should be a free school or an academy, 69% voted for the academy option; only 10% of respondents were in favour of a free school, whilst 21% stated no preference. But many residents felt there was one option that was missing: another local authority school.
“Why weren’t Hackney parents given the option to vote for another community school?” asked Caroline Millar, who has seen two children through Stoke Newington School, a top-performing local authority school. “I don’t think anyone really understands what free schools are, or why they should be better than any other sort…There has been no debate about the really important issues around accountability to parents and the local community”. Ms Millar echoes the sentiment of many Hackney residents who are concerned about the effect free schools will have on the existing system in Hackney.
Supporters of free schools argue that proposals for new schools should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. But vague guidelines have added to confusion about how free schools are to be regulated. Despite reservations like these, twenty-four new free schools are due to open in England in September. None of them are in Hackney, but critics of free schools fear that their spread may imperil the improvements that have been achieved here over the last decade.
In a sense, however, Hackney already has free schools. Hackney’s Mossbourne Community Academy and City Academy have the same legal status as free schools because they are government-funded, and not controlled by the local authority. All academies in the borough are centrally funded and centrally accountable to the Secretary of State. Hackney has been a focal point of debate over free schools due to the success of this unusual agreement. Likewise, free schools will (according to proposals) be held to account by the Minister for Education.
“Government policy has given greater autonomy to all schools,” a Learning Trust spokesperson says of Gove’s approach. But “as a local authority, we will always focus on maintaining education standards across the board.” However, The Learning Trust’s contract to run Hackney education is due to end in July 2012, and this has added to uncertainties about the future.
So, the question of school funding is central to this debate. Free schools will be funded by central government and are given more freedom to control their own spending. While the schools themselves are not allowed to make a profit, they are permitted to outsource materials and resources to profit-making companies.
Local authority schools are funded by and accountable to the local council, leaving them with less spending power but more community engagement. Critics argue that the free schools model undermines the local authority and gives undue power to the private sector via sponsors and education chains whose primary aim is to make money.
Free schools supporters, however, argue that the local authority model fails to raise standards.
Gove’s vision for free schools is being put into practice nationally by the New Schools Network, which provides guidelines and support for various groups, among them businesses, teachers, and charities, who want to set up free schools. To gain approval, groups must provide evidence of demand for the school (via petitions), full business and academic plans, and demonstrate “expertise, passion and the capacity to deliver a successful school over the long term”, says Rachel Wolf, founder of the New Schools Network (NSN).
Wolf argues that free schools give individuals and communities more control over local services, the same principle behind the big society. For free schools to succeed, Wolf says,“it’s important to keep accountability very clear…If groups involved don’t provide better education to students, they don’t get to keep their school.”
Deciding who these people should be and defining ‘better’ education is just one area where the Local Schools Network (LSN), a group which promotes the cause of Hackney’s local authority schools, collides with the NSN.
LSN’s supporters insist that free schools’ accountability policies are, despite Wolf’s promises, very unclear. At best, they argue, free schools may offer a better education to their own students, but what about the rest of the schools in the borough? While free schools may be an easy sell because they promise to raise standards, the long-term consequences of diverting resources from the local authority leads to an uneven playing field among schools.
“If we want to improve schools,” says Fiona Millar of the Local Schools Network, “we need to look at the entire system as a whole…not give some communities the opportunity to isolate themselves and operate outside their local authority”. This autonomy, the critics say, is a by-word for divisiveness.
Local parent Allan Beavis believes there is “deliberate lack of clarity” in defining regulations for free schools so as to avoid adhering to the fixed standards of locally-run schools. But the New Schools Network stands by the inclusiveness of its admissions, touting financial incentives to take on more deprived students.
“The key question” says Henry Stewart of the LSN, “ is which will be better, thousands of schools selfishly competing against each other, or schools locally coordinated with an element of competition?”
For parents navigating an increasingly complex education landscape, the proof will be in the pudding this term, when England’s first free school terms are under way.
Note: this article was amended at 9.50pm on Wednesday 14 September 2011. In our original article we incorrectly stated that Hackney academies are accountable to The Learning Trust. In fact, all academies in the borough are centrally funded and centrally accountable to the Secretary of State. Notwithstanding, the Learning Trust says that it does expect them to work together with other schools in Hackney.