Shine A Light

Busting the myths around England’s “free schools”: a teacher’s report

Social segregation. Corporate secrecy. Poor teaching and inflated grades. Free schools are intended by the government to "improve education for children in their community" - but many teachers have serious doubts.

Sara Tomlinson
1 October 2011

The first 24 “free schools” opened in England in September, championed by Conservative education secretary Michael Gove, run by companies and charities, and described by the Department of Education as “all-ability state-funded schools set up in response to what local people say they want and need in order to improve education for children in their community.”

But these newly established “free schools” and the “academies” (established schools put under new management) both of which operate outside local authority control, are, in effect, privatisation by stealth.

Sara Tomlinson is a primary school teacher in south London, an officer for the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in Lambeth and is active in the Anti-Academies Alliance. In this interview with Corporate Watch, Tomlinson voices teachers' concerns, touching upon the companies and charities involved.

24 free schools have now opened and many people seem to be happy with them so far. One parent at the newly opened Alborough Free School in Redbridge, run by E-ACT, was quoted saying: “What E-Act have done to the school in three weeks is brilliant – a tremendous turnaround.” So why are you against them?

I think it's very early, two, three weeks into term, to tell whether these schools are successful. I'm sure if you ask these same parents a few months down the line, then maybe issues and problems will pop up. My children attend an academy (I objected to it being an academy; I wanted it to be a community school). Lots of parents sent their children there initially but, if you were to ask them now, I think they would say there are no advantages to it being an academy rather than a community school. We have missed out on lots of local expertise by it not being a community school.

What sort of issues?

You start off with a whole lot of promises but, actually, when you start from scratch, you realise that schools that are run by local authorities bring with them a wealth of experience from the collective knowledge of educationalists. You ditch all of that when you start as a free school. You're setting yourself up outside the community, outside democracy, outside accountability. So I think they'll soon find out there are plenty of problems.

The government is arguing that free schools have been successful in Sweden, for example. Why shouldn't they be here?

Well, it's interesting that two weeks ago there was a report out in Sweden that showed that Swedish free schools are there to make a profit, cut corners in order to make a profit, and select.

They compared two schools in Malmo. The free school had significantly fewer refugee children, immigrant children and children of ethnic minorities. The reporter walked round the school and found the children sitting playing cards. They had an option of whether to go into the lessons or not. Lots of the lessons were taught without a teacher — on computer modules, and the education was seen as much poorer. The ratio of teachers was something like 5.1:100 compared to 8.2:100 in state schools. The children were coming out with inflated grades so universities were finding that the school had given them grades that didn't mean anything. That model has been blown out of the water and the whole ethos has been exposed, which is to make a profit, to employ fewer staff.

That’s an explosive report. It’s going to be really useful for campaigners against free schools, to expose the lies that are put about by those wanting to set them up.

So what are teachers here saying about free schools?

Most teachers think that they are a completely crackpot idea. You allow somebody to come along and just set up a school, you give them public money and public property and allow them to teach without qualifications, to teach really any ideas that they wish without any regulation. See, what I want to know is: why are head teachers afraid of local authorities coming in and looking at their practices? The ABC of how they are going to get better results comes down to, well, they're going to make teachers work longer, they're going to make children be in school for longer. They extend the day till five o'clock, they reduce the holiday. So it's not rocket science, is it?

Teacher trade unions are all united in their opposition to this plan. We know what works in education and what works is to not have such a high focus on testing. Lots of research has shown that all of these initiatives are looking at raw test results but we know what makes children thrive, what makes children happy, what gives children the deeper thinking skills that come from good teaching, not just jumping through hoops passing tests. There is a tried and tested method for how to run a school. You set up outside of that and you exclude yourself from the community.

The arguments for academies and free schools sound very similar: more local control, less bureaucracy, more independence. Why do you think free schools are being introduced; why not just stick to academies?

I think free schools are one more step in the direction from making a profit from schools. There have been people in the media recently asking: “what's so wrong with making a profit in education?” Although the Lib Dems have tried to say that is not going to be part of the free school project, I think it is the logical conclusion.

But they are not for profit at the moment?

I think the government, and a lot of the people setting up these schools, have said that there isn't a profit motive, but it's a bit more subtle than just somebody making a big profit from running a service. Look, for example, at E-ACT, who are going to be one of the biggest free school providers. Bruce Liddington is the director. It's supposed to be a charity but he is the highest paid individual in education in this country. His salary was something in excess of a quarter of a million pounds. But that doesn't include the bonuses, money for coming and talking at conferences and so on.

So that's one side of it. The other side of it is services provided to schools that are currently run mostly through local authorities. These are now being snapped up by companies running human resources services, pay services, legal services, which used to be run on a sort of collective basis where everybody chipped in. They're now going to be undercut from companies that come in and offer those services for less. That will affect us in lots of ways. So if you think of human resources, at the moment they are run in most schools by services that are run by the local authorities. So there is a link with democracy. The unions are negotiated with at a local level through human resources. The councillors, those who we elect, are linked in, they come to meetings, everything is made accountable. There are public servants and there is transparency. Any corruption we can root out, we can scrutinise what happens.

Compare that with companies. For example, in Lambeth there is a school called Durand and they are currently taking the local authority to court in a dispute over libel. And they have previously resorted to libel lawyers. This is the kind of move that I worry about. They're running schools with money provided by the public. I believe it needs to be open, accountable and transparent. But they're meant to be accountable to central government, which is where they are getting their money from.

Excessive money was put into the free schools programme -— as much money as was needed. When everybody else is being asked to cut back, there is money being put into the free school programme at a central level. Unless you have spies or moles in the central government, we don't know how that money is being used. So we don't know what accountability measures are in place. Who are they going to be accountable to? I think just to the Secretary of State for Education. I mean initially, unbelievably, academies were exempt from the Freedom of Information act. The law has changed since then but that shows the ethos behind setting them up: “We want the freedom to do what we like with your money and you won't be able to ask us about it.”

How does the funding work for free schools?

Technically a free school will get the same amount of money per pupil as any state school. That is the theory. But there have been questions asked around whether they are getting more generous funding allowances. Academies, when they were first set up, had a more generous allowance than state schools. Yet despite that extra funding, they still didn't do any better in their results. In fact, the schools that are improving the fastest in the country are still those that are run by the community and in the local authority.

So lots of myths need to be busted. Now free schools are allowed to take over buildings. The government is going to change planning regulations so that local authorities have to give unused buildings to anybody who wants to come along and set up a free school. I think the worst aspect of it is that there is no overall planning with a free school. It is not an authority looking at the numbers, looking at the budgets, saying we will need a school in this place, in this year, because these children are coming in and we'll need a school. It is an individual or a company coming and saying: “I'm going to put a school here regardless of whether there is a need. And if you don't like it, don't send your kids here.”

So the school that is planned for my borough, in Lambeth, will, if it gets the go-ahead for the land that it wants, be set up in the middle of four schools. And those four schools are not oversubscribed necessarily. They are doing well with the support of the local authority. If a school comes and markets itself in the middle of that community, it will destroy school places in those schools. And because money follows the child, you are openly competing with your neighbouring schools. That is not how we want education to be run. If you don't collaborate with your fellow neighbouring schools and help each other, you are using that community to destroy other schools to make yours better. That's not an ethos we can have in education.

You've been talking about companies and individuals but the charities, such as Ark, have been very vocal in the free schools movement. What do you think their role is in this?

I think ARK is a very interesting example. It was set up by some merchant bankers from Goldman Sachs. So the very people who have been credited with wrecking our economy are now in charge of running education. If you look at the history of state education, it was started because we did not want to rely on the kind words and pennies from rich individuals who thought they would help the poor. We wanted to pay for our own education without being in hock to anybody's philosophy or ethos. Now we seem to be sliding back to philanthropy. We may have a school where they give us a nice new building but perhaps you have to use certain computer programmes, or have to wear certain logos on your clothes, and so on.

And look at the ethos of Ark. They run a charity bash every year, a ball, which is the kind of thing you see in America, where you pay thousand of pounds for a ticket and only celebrities attend. The attendees at this year's Ark charity bash were Kate Middleton and whatever her husband's called – it was their first public engagement. This sets the tone. Elizabeth Murdoch was a guest. So you've got merchant bankers, corrupt media barons and an unelected royal family; these are the people who represent a charity that is now looking to run lots of schools.

And if you dig even further into Ark, one of their leading directors, Sally Morgan, has just been appointed to head Ofsted, while remaining as an advisor to Ark, and a second, Amanda Spielman, has been recommended to lead Ofqual, which is another government quango. So the corruption that we've seen in the Murdoch scandal, I see those tentacles of big business and government coming into the education sector.

And resistance against free schools is building?

I think everywhere they've been set up there's been a voice of resistance. Toby Young's free school was originally going to be set up in Ealing until a local campaign chased them out. They've now been set up in Hammersmith. Interestingly, Toby Young claims his new school, where they wear gowns and play hockey – it seems like Hogwarts to me – is a mixed school and they have social integration. Yet the percentage of their students taking free school meals is half that of the neighbouring schools.

Exactly what we said would happen is happening. Free schools will lead to social segregation and the only way you will improve your results is by excluding those who are going to cause you more challenges; needy children, vulnerable children, the exact children our money should go to serve. These schools are only going to serve the needs of the middle class parents.

We have a campaign in Lambeth against the free school that is being proposed. There's another campaign in Hammersmith. So there are campaigns that are being set up but it is very difficult when the government is bribing parents by asking them if they want a brand new school. Because no parent is going to say: “no, I don't want the best for my child.” But we have to ensure that all our children get the best possible education they can.

And in a borough like mine, in Lambeth, you take away services, adventure playgrounds, after-school clubs, because the schools can't afford to run them. And remember that the free schools programme is funded by cuts to the Building Schools for the Future programme - it's a direct swap. So you take jobs away from the parents because they've been made redundant and then you take money away from their schools.

Corporate Watch's interviews with teachers and other public sector workers are here.

This interview is republished with kind permission from Corporate Watch.

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