Thursday, 22 July 2010

Please, Mr Gove, can I start a free school?

There is something almost naively endearing about the Government's latest half-baked scheme for reforming education: free schools. But it's all a sinister ploy, I tell you.

I mean, why fanny around with setting up an academy - you know, take the trouble of transforming an existing state school - when you can just start from scratch on any old premises that will pass muster, making up some plausible reason why the local state schools don't quite meet your children's needs?

Of course, you have to get past the vetting procedure first. It's more rigorous than the government has made out up till now. It's nothing like as DIY as was presented in Tory Party election broadcasts. See the flow diagram here:

So, at the back of it, there must be some pretty big outfits somewhere lining up to set up "chains" of free schools (SkoolsRUs?). Before the election we heard about a group of parents who wanted to set up a free school, the Birkenshaw, Birstall and Gomersal Parent Alliance. It turns out this group was looking into setting up a "free school" with that Big Society multinational SERCO! Other multinationals are looking forward to getting in on the act.

The legislation for academies and free schools is being rushed through Parliament now. The Department of Education is so overworked and lacking in capacity that it has enlisted the help of a charity, the New Schools Network (NSN), to advise people thinking of applying to open a free school. This charity includes some key advisers to Michael Gove. From the NSN website:

Director: Rachel Wolf

Before she founded the New Schools Network, Rachel was an education adviser to the Conservative Party.
The Tories used to like to complain about quangos stuffed with Tony's cronies. What on earth is this, if it ins't more of the same, only worse, because at least quangos were, you know, quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations, not just completely independent bodies over which the public has no control.

The Department for Education website explains why NSN is being used:
Why are you working with the New Schools Network?

We believe that there is a need for support at local level for groups interested in setting up Free Schools. The NSN has already built up a large network of such groups as well as experience in supporting them; the Department does not have that experience. We think this makes them best placed at this particular time to help us develop early momentum behind the Free Schools policy. The NSN will work closely with the Department and will hand over projects when it is agreed that they are sufficiently developed to be formally submitted to Ministers for approval.
So NSN is good enough for the Department for Education to work with, or, rather, for an incoming, ideologically driven adminstration that has already had close contacts with them to work with. Is that reassuring enough for you? It isn't for me.

Something I find particularly offensive is that the form for registering interest in opening a free school is semi-hosted on the NSN website, which also features, prominently, an appeal for donations. I simply don't think this is ethical. What is this charity? What does it do, how much do its directors earn? And should people feel pressured into donating to it, as I'm sure many people will?

If you want to know more about the free schools policy (no, this is not an advertisement!) I advise you to visit the NSN website, and also the Department for Education's Frequently Asked Questions page on free schools. Here are some snippets from that which should alarm anyone about what might be the future for state education: publicly funded but independent and unaccountable, and, quite likely, run behind the scenes by big business for profit.

Do Free Schools need agreement from the local authority? Proposers will be free to discuss their plans with any local partners, including the local authority, and we encourage them to do so; however; the LA will not need to approve your plans.

How will applicants be expected to demonstrate that they are suitable education providers? Proposers will need to demonstrate that they have strong educational aims and objectives for their new schools, and have the ability or resources to deliver them. Proposers will not have to be groups who already provide education services; they can be new providers but we will expect them to be able to demonstrate a capability to deliver their plans. This might mean partnering new providers with a third-party group with education experience or having plans in place to subcontract parts of the running and management of the school to other suitable organisations.

Who provides the premises for Free Schools? How will you help groups secure sites?We will remove the unnecessary and burdensome regulations that get in the way of local communities securing sites for new schools. This will include allowing a wider range of sites to be used as schools without the need for ‘change of use’ consent. In addition, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will aim to update guidelines, before summer recess, to local planning authorities to make it clear there is a presumption in favour of setting up new schools.

Can Free Schools contract out the running of the school? Can those contractors make a profit?We expect all Free Schools to be established on a non-profit-making basis. All income and assets of the charitable trust must be spent and used for the charitable purpose of the trust, which will run the school, i.e. to advance education for the public benefit.

However, like all state schools, the trust will be able to subcontract elements of the running and management of the school to other organisations, including private companies.
If any of this worries you, please do think of getting involved with Barnet Anti Academies Alliance, which has been set up to fight the government's and Barnet council's policy of encouraging academies and free schools.

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