The possibility of a so called ‘Free’ School opening in Hackney is cause for real concern. Those behind the plans do not appear to have considered the direct harm this will cause to the state schools we already have in Hackney and the long term damage this will do to the education of the children here.
Those hoping to open a Free School in Hackney claim that this will have no impact on the funding of other state schools. This is simply not true. Numerous sources have challenged this assertion. As described in a letter signed by numerous local parents, teachers and Hackney councillors including Cllrs Akehurst and McShane last week:
‘Free Schools’ are to be wholly funded with public money, money available only because funding that would otherwise have been available to state schools, such as through the Building Schools for the Future fund, and the Harnessing Technology Fund (responsible for the provision and maintenance of state of the art ICT equipment in state schools nationwide), has been cut. Â£100 million has been cut from the Harnessing Technology Fund alone.
The Department for Education’s own website describes how money has been ‘reallocated’ from funds accessible by all state schools, into a budget for the exclusive use of ‘Free Schools’. The very existence of a ‘Free School’ in Hackney would therefore mean there would be less money available to sustain our state schools.
Jane Basset, president of Hackney National Union of Teachers, explains that “Every penny paid to a Free School takes money away from the national education budget.”
Hackney councillor Alan Laing agrees: “The assertion of supporters of this school that no money will be taken from other Hackney schools is stretching the truth to beyond what is realistic.”
The Free Schools project is also problematic as it is likely to lead to the closure of existing state schools. Schools are funded largely per pupil – “ in Hackney each school receives approximately £6,000 per year per child attending. If a state school loses just five children to a Free School, it will have lost £30,000 from its annual budget – much more than the salary of a newly qualified teacher. So the loss of even a small number of pupils means the loss of significant amounts of essential funding to pay for staff and school facilities and if a school cannot afford its basic running costs, it will close.
There is the additional problem of the complete lack of accountability – Free Schools are given public money, but are outside local authority control. Although the taxpayer funds them, the taxpayer has no say in how they are run and no way to hold them to account if they are run badly.
Cllr Laing is concerned about this aspect of the Free Schools experiment and argues that “No school should be in receipt of public money without democratic oversight and accountability”, which is exactly the deal with Free Schools.
We give them millions of pounds. We hope for the best. Toby Young, the Tories’ darling at the forefront of this project, has just been awarded £40 million of public money to spend on his Free School. What can we do if the money is wasted? Nothing.
In Sweden, where the Free Schools project has been up and running for many years, there have been numerous examples of public money being badly wasted and worse, such as through the ‘education investment company’ AcadeMedia, which made gains of 140 million Swedish krona, just over £13 million, from Free Schools. This is public money, paid by taxpayers to contribute to public services – instead it has gone straight into the profits of a private company.
Free Schools are touted as being a chance for local people to come together and put together the kind of school they want to see in their area. Yet, as John Blake of Labour Teachers explains, “Free Schools’ claims to localism are laughable – Free Schools have no requirement to consult with parents other than those involved in setting it up or have representatives of parents involved in running the school.”
They also have no requirement to adhere to the planning safeguards that apply to other state schools and ensure that they are only opened in suitable buildings, in areas which can accommodate the school, its pupils and the extra pedestrian and road traffic of the school run. The recently approved West London Free School is already being objected to by locals, including Mr Winter, headteacher of the other secondary school in the area, Latymer School. Mr Winter says he doubts local infrastructure can cope with an influx of pupils and that he has serious practical concerns about the location of a new school in an already busy area. The Free School founders are under no obligation to act on his concerns.
Those aiming to open a Free School in Hackney accept that the schools already open here are great schools, but they tell us we need a Free School anyway, because it will offer flexibility for working parents. Our local primary school is open at 8am for breakfast club and until 6pm for after school club and I know this is absolutely typical of primary schools in Hackney.
Unless the Hackney Free School is going to open for sleepovers or at weekends I am not sure what more flexibility it can provide. They also say they will be a “parent orientated” school. Shame it is the children who have to go there. The only tangible example of this parent focus is that teachers will be encouraged to carry out home visits. I have no idea why this is considered of benefit. It just sounds like a complete waste of time – would we rather teachers spend time crafting new and inspiring lesson plans, marking work and preparing the classroom for the following day, or spend it traipsing around the streets of Hackney looking for the front doors of every child in their class?
Next door in Haringey, the Free Schools project is slightly further along than in Hackney and there are four Free Schools being proposed.
Julie Davies, secretary of Haringey NUT has watched it develop there with an increasing sense of unease. Her recent experiences lead her to the view that the “Free Schools initiative is part of the coalition government’s wider agenda to smash things up so that universality of provision will end.
“The government is unhappy with the framework for teachers’ pay. Free Schools can employ unqualified staff and they are set up to do just this. Small schools that are not economically viable within the framework of national pay and conditions will get start up costs, and public buildings and land, and then will sink or swim as a cottage industry for people who don’t want their children to mix with children who aren’t just like them. It licences parental choice on the basis of race, faith and particularly class though no doubt the founders of all Free Schools will deny this until they have their hands on the money.”
Sweden is much further into the Free Schools experiment than us, having introduced the first ones there over ten years ago. I spoke to ex-government minister Lena Sommestad, of Sweden’s Social Democrat party about the country’s experience of Free Schools.
“Before Free Schools were introduced, it didn’t matter what school you went to in Sweden, they were all alike, the impact of the school would be broadly the same and Sweden frequently topped international league tables for educational achievement in schools. There was then introduced the idea that we should have choice, that children should not all just go to their local school and expect the same good quality education, but parents should be able to look around and see which school they liked best, and that this would cause schools to improve, as they tried to attract pupils.
“Many people believed the promises of the advocates of Free Schools that competition would drive up effectiveness, but in fact it has had the opposite effect. Many years on and there are now dramatic differences in the quality of the education offered in different schools, overall results are down, and Sweden’s international ranking has been falling since 2003. The introduction of ‘freedom’ into our education system has meant that those with the financial resources to move into areas which have schools considered good, do so. Those without the resources to move are left with the schools no one else wants. We are now seeing segregation in our schools, along lines of social class. This is a new problem for Sweden and one that the Department for Education here is now noticing.
“Another problem is that we have profit making Free Schools, with big companies running them. We started out with a few nice Free Schools, such as Montessori schools, but then we began to see venture capital companies open Free Schools. These schools have made quite big profits, which they don’t reinvest back into the school or even spend in Sweden – they put the money offshore, into tax havens. It has been so easy to establish a Free School here that some have had very dubious people in charge of them, who don’t always deliver what they promise.
“We have seen a number of private companies running Free Schools promise to deliver for example, vocational training, to their pupils, but then fail to do so. There is now a debate in SwedenÂ on how to supervise and control these schools more, to ensure they are delivering what they say they will, but the downside of this is that it means increased testing on children, to check what they are actually learning.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lena Sommestad ended our conversation by telling me that people in Sweden are now starting to get a little bit more hostile to Free Schools.
And so they should. And so should we. ‘Free Schools’ are so named because they have been set ‘free’ from many of the safeguards that apply to other schools. They are ‘free’ to employ, as teachers, people who are not qualified to teach. They take money away from our already existing state schools to such an extent that they could be forced to close. They are free to set up in inappropriate buildings, in unsuitable areas, to determine their own admissions criteria and do what they like with millions of pounds of public money.
I really hope the people of Hackney don’t fall for this ‘choice’ rubbish – we need to see the Free Schools experiment for what it is and reject it out of hand for our children.