Free schools: Do they make education standards better or worse, or do they make no difference?

September 11, 2012, 11:20 AM GMT+0

In Labs last week, we asked participants what their views on free schools were.

  • Free schools are state-funded but are not under the control of a local authority. In contrast to state schools, free schools have a much wider control over both their teaching and budgets.
  • Free schools can be set up by parents, teachers or voluntary groups. The founders who set up free schools are not able to make a profit from running them but they are allowed to commission private companies to provide services to the schools.
  • Education Secretary Michael Gove announced that fifty-five new free schools are opening this month, with a further one hundred and fourteen planned to open next year.
  • Mr Gove said: “Every child should have the choice to go to an excellent local school. These new schools have been set up by idealistic people who are determined to give parents the kind of choice that only the rich can currently afford.”
  • However, Mr Gove has come under criticism, with one free school in Bradford costing £200,000 and still yet to open, due to a shortage of pupils.
  • More criticism has come from Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg. Speaking on Sky News, Mr Twigg said that: “The problem we have got is the government puts all of its eggs in the basket of free schools, so when they fail it is a waste of public money.” In addition, Mr Twigg noted that free schools are not always appropriate for the areas they are located in.

Labs participants were asked whether they thought the creation of more free schools would make education standards better or worse, and whether they thought it made no difference.

Free schools make education standards worse:

  • The majority of Labs participants said that the creation of free schools would make standards worse. Various explanations were provided by participants in this group.
  • Participants in this group were primarily worried about the creation of more free schools leading to an unequal education system where the wealthiest in society continue to control the education resources.
  • Secondly, these participants were concerned about the lack of accountability, with free schools being immune to regulation from the government. Participants were also worried about free schools being run by people with little expertise in education.
  • In addition, other participants were both sceptical and highly critical of the Education Secretary’s free school policies.

Free schools make education standards better:

  • In contrast, a much smaller number of participants said that the creation of free schools would make education standards better.
  • Participants in this group said that free schools would allow greater flexibility, less bureaucracy, and more freedom for schools to make decisions, as they would be free from the control of local authorities.
  • In turn, most participants in this group believed that smaller class sizes and a flexible curriculum would allow children to thrive and also give more parents a say in the running of free schools.

Free schools make no difference to education standards:

  • Fewer participants said that education standards would make no difference. These participants said that a lack of consistency in educational policy would mean that there would be no difference, with political party decisions undermining education.
  • Other participants stated that there would be no difference as free schools would have the same pool of teachers and children that state schools have.

Participants were then asked whether they were in favour or against allowing free schools to commission private companies to manage these schools.

Participants who were against free schools commissioning private companies to manage free schools:

  • The majority of participants in Labs were against allowing free schools to commission private companies to manage free schools. Those participants who were against said that education should be the sole responsibility of the state and that private companies should have no business in running education.
  • Other people tended to believe that free schools would make education standards worse. Similarly, on the whole participants who were against private schools managing free schools were deeply suspicious of the motives of private companies.
  • Participants voiced their fear about money being diverted from education budgets towards management budgets, and the emphasis of private companies towards maximizing profit and revenue.

Participants who supported free schools commissioning private companies to manage free schools:

  • A much smaller section of participants said that they were in favour of free schools commissioning private companies. Participants that fell into this group also tended to believe that free schools made education standards better.
  • Other people believed that allowing private companies to manage free schools would allow greater flexibility in running the school and also greater freedom for parents.
  • Furthermore, participants saw private companies as having experience and insight, which some participants said could lead to better results.

Free Schools:

Here's what our poll participants had to say...

Viewpoint 1- Free schools make education standards worse

“Because there will be less supervision by inspectors and therefore the schools will be able to provide what syllabus they want and put whatever bias they want on subjects and topicsAnon

“The division of education based on political ideologies has always had a negative effect on educational standards” Lee, London

“Schools run by people with no philosophical background or education in the practice of Teaching and Learning and created by an Education Secretary who has no idea whatsoever about State Education as he attended private schoolSue, East Sussex

“Well-heeled parents will use free schools to divert resources away from the priority needs in education. Gove's policies will do nothing to address the issues of underperformance in areas of social deprivation Anon

It will make standards worse because these experimental institutions are not required to adhere to the same minimum standards that normal schools are. They are not required to hire qualified teachers; they are not required to stick to a rigorous curriculum. They are not even required to ensure that their school dinners are edible” Ed, Northampton

“Lack of accountability over what is taught, how it's taught and who is teaching it Anon

“It creates inequality and a postcode lottery between free schools and local authority controlled schools and in general means there's less money within the education system for everyoneAnon

No local authority to monitor standards” Anon

“By diverting funding from the standard Community schools, there will be a detrimental effect on Budgets for other schools which will mean larger class sizes. Also, the growing acceptance that un-qualified staff can be employed to take lessons” Gill, Liverpool

Reduce resources for other schools. No evidence that marketization of education improves standards” Andy

“The disintegration of a unified local education authority will lead to a worsening of standards given that free schools will not be as regulated” Keith, London

“Free schools will be able to employ non-specialists and those that have rushed through a short teaching course. Subject knowledge alone does not make a great teacherAndy, St Helens

Viewpoint 2 - Free schools make education standards better

More flexibility, less bureaucracy. Will insist on teaching qualityAnon

“They can set higher standards and not have the local authority interferingJN

Teachers will have more of a say in the curriculum and be able to offer flexible lessons to cater for different abilities. Parents will be able to have more say in the education of their childrenJan, Coventry

“People who care about the specific community will be involved; a level of personalization to the children; less bureaucracy; ability to match provision to specific local circumstancesAnon

“Competition and parental involvement lead to better relationships between teachers and the community” M West, Lincolnshire

“Their very establishment suggests parents are not happy with the status quo in their area. Any new school will only survive if the parents and children are happy with the education received. This should drive up standardsGB, Bristol

It'll give parents more choice about where to send their kids; hopefully bad schools will face competition and either improve or close” John, Chepstow

Viewpoint 3 - Free schools make no difference to education standards

“There is nothing consistent about free schools, which will depend for results on intake of pupils, resources, staff and catchment area - like other schools. If they are set up mostly by middle-class parents, they may achieve good results, but some will probably fail. Some will have poor quality buildings and untrained staffDeirdre, London

“Outside the control of local authorities means that there isn't a uniform curriculum so standards will differ from school to school Anon

“The government has given money for free schools as a start-up but other state schools have had to rely on existing resources. The ratio of pupils to teachers is reliant on the amount of money available. So it will make no difference to standardsTerry, Liverpool

“Some free schools will have higher standards, some will have lower standards depending on the catchment area, teaching and learning quality, input from parentsAnon

Free Schools created by well-meaning people or groups will have no significant effect on the standard of education in the said school due to the following reasons: Education standard is not determined by the amount of profit made by non-free schools, it is determined by the quality of educators, educationist and administrators in the schools. Schools run by stakeholders have a better chance of providing improved education standards than schools that are established to enrich the management staffsOsundina S, Essex

“All teachers whether they teach in public, state, free or academy schools want the pupils to do well and achieve within their capabilities, the only difference between the schools is the way staff and pupils are viewed by the government” Bob, Surrey

Viewpoint 4 - Participants who were against commissioning private companies to manage free schools

“Private companies themselves could set up these schools, then enlist their own services this allows them to use the government as a cash cowAlex M

Privatisation has failed to work for any other service; schools and education will be no differentDee D, Yorkshire

“It's yet another step towards privatisation of education and takes control away from the government and towards businesses, who do not work in the interests of the peopleCalum, Fife

“Because private companies are out to make a profit for their shareholders and not out to provide our children with an educationAnon

“Money will be diverted from education, to management. Local experience of academies has shown the waste and corruption which occurs when management of schools moves out of democratic control” Dave, Lincoln

Private companies care about profits not about pupilsShaz, Birmingham

“A private company cannot be allowed to mould the future of this country. They are all for profit, and are not following any nationwide education schemes” Joe W, Wigan

“Private companies have an agenda which is based on making money...also there is no guarantee that they will not make radical changes to what is taught in the school and whether it is in the public interest or not” Anon

“This opens up education to being exploited for money making activities of companies or individuals. The only concern the management system within a school should have is the education and welfare of the students it serves. It should not have any other vested interest” Anon

Viewpoint 5 - Participants who supported commissioning private companies to manage free schools

“Experience in all areas is that private, profit-making companies are best at meeting customer requirements. State organizations have poor productivity and lack financial controlAnon

“The logic of the free school system is fundamentally sound and points towards a system whereby parents can commission private interests to manage schools. When parents decide it is in their child's best interest to employ a private company then we can be sure that is this is almost certainly the case. A wider range of providers will make the prospect of well managed schools more likely. While the potential for profit will attract both further investment and the best qualified into school management” Marcus, Perth

Free schools need funding that's all there is too it, the more funds available the higher the quality of equipment available meaning students would get the best education possible Callum L, Leeds

“A private company specialising in the education sector can bring expertise and economies of scale, allowing the head teacher and school management to focus on maintaining school standards” Anon

“Since parents, teachers and voluntary groups can set up free schools, funding would be limited, so businesses should step in to aid with that and ensure facilities provided to children are excellent and up to standard” Osmi A, Manchester

Greater flexibility in running the school will overall be a positive changeA Williams, Teeside

What's your view? Do you have any other views on free schools?

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