Saturday, March 19, 2011

Free schools bite the dust

Remember the promise from Gove that parents would be encouraged to open schools? Looks like that's fallen by the wayside, as Toby Young reports in the Telegraph. From here on in, the old system where a group would simply have to prepare a short brief, pass an interview and then receive funding for support to develop a proper outline business case for the school (covering the key technical points about the operation) has been scrapped. Instead, all applications will now need an outline business case from the outset, which will need considerable expertise - expertise that it is unlikely that a parent/staff group will possess and which will have to be bought in from one of the specialist companies that are springing up to run these schools.

I've never backed the free schools concept - it has always struck me as an inefficient and ineffective solution to the problem of poor quality education as well as flawed in far more significant ways - but the populist aspect of it was perhaps the only remotely attractive element. Young also notes that at least one parent group has already handed over their proposals to ARK, who will be opening the academy in their own image. Making it more difficult will simply force parents to call in the specialist providers - much in the same way that GPs will call in specialist consultants to run their commissioning processes.

It isn't clear why this change has been brought about - whether the quality of applications has been poor, whether there are concerns about policy presentation or if there has actually been a problem in finding enough parent/teacher groups prepared to do the hard graft of setting up a new school and this move is simply Gove hoping that the private sector will leap in to save his flagship policy. I predict that within the year, Gove will remove the ban on free schools being run for profit, as he starts the race to the bottom in education provision. Incidentally, while the schools currently aren't run for profit, there's no reason why providers of services to those schools can't make profits and there will be plenty of those waiting to dig their knives into these fresh little barrels of pork.

Whatever the reasoning behind this DfE decision, it is another nail in the coffin of the 'localism' agenda from the government - an unsustainable claim in any case, as academies and free schools are stripped from the local education system (democratically accountable through your local authority and the elected councillors, as well as through governors from the local community and the parents) and placed under appointed governing bodies funded directly from central government. What this does do, beyond any doubt, is encourage still further the creeping privatisation of our public services, without any evidence that the changes will actually improve outcomes.

Not even Thatcher tried selling off the schools, but - just as Lansley is in healthcare - Gove is intent on destroying the system and replacing it with an untried model that will be very difficult for a future government to reverse.

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