Choice and diversity are regular buzzwords in education. It’s taken as read that parents crave the ability to choose the school for their children and that lots of different schools to choose from will drive up standards. I’m not so sure. And the latest research into the government’s free school project throws fresh doubt on whether it is truly delivering what parents were promised.
It should be said, particularly by an organisation like NAHT, which represents the majority of school leaders in the UK, that the promises of more autonomy for the leaders of free schools is also beginning to look a little illusory, to put it mildly.
Originally, the free school project was intended to offer the opportunity for different community groups to set up schools. In the beginning we saw this happening, but many of these schools have been absorbed into larger trusts and new free schools are now overwhelmingly set up by Multi Academy Trusts (MATs), so it would be wrong to claim that free schools are responsible for any additional diversity in the system.
Whilst free schools are not bound by the national curriculum, they are held to account in the same ways as more established schools. This makes it highly unlikely that they will be able to offer the innovation that was initially proposed. On paper there might be more autonomy on offer for the leaders of these schools but, most free schools have similar term dates, staffing structures and subject offers to longer-established schools.
Of course, no school is immune to the funding crisis. In the end, underfunding limits the ambitions of all schools. Right now, all schools are making drastic cuts to activities, subjects and staffing levels because their budgets are at breaking point.
The Department for Education (DfE) advises free schools which are struggling to balance their budgets to join a MAT. The DfE suggests that the minimum viable number of pupils in a MAT is about 5,000. That’s much larger than the average. Joining a MAT of that size would most likely be the immediate end of the founding values of the school and any true autonomy for the school’s leadership.
In reality, the support systems for free schools are severely limited. The Local Authority no longer has any power to step in and nearby MATs often lack the capacity to help. Indeed, current thinking is that MATs are unwilling to take on smaller free schools precisely because of their financial unviability.
Opening a new school is a difficult business, requiring lots of capacity from the proposer group. The fact that free schools now tend to be set up by Multi Academy Trusts shows that tried and tested methods and a strong support network are a necessity, which begs the question why the Local Authorities who are able to offer this, are barred from opening new schools themselves.
It’s well known that the pupil population is rising. The government’s own figures show that an extra 654,000 school places will be needed in England by 2026, to meet a nine per cent rise in pupil population. The free school programme is an incredibly inefficient way of attempting to meet this need.
Free schools, when open, operate as their own admissions authority, so there will be many different admissions criteria for parents to navigate. This is needlessly confusing and does not make for a joined-up system that truly has children’s best interests at heart.
There’s no real choice for parents when the schools nearest to them are competing with each other by offering different admissions options. NAHT would like to see overall responsibility for admissions returned to the local authority, with sufficient powers to make sure that it is easy for parents to find the appropriate school places for their children.
At our annual conference last month, the Secretary of State promised to bring more clarity to this mixed economy system.
Free schools should only be set up in areas where they are needed. At the moment we have the massive school place shortages in some areas and surpluses in others. NAHT will be working with the government over the coming months to make sure that the confusion and inefficiency schools and parents have to cope with comes to a swift end.
Nick Brook is deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT