Free schools are a disaster
Michael Gove’s flagship policy is a huge waste of money, socially divisive and won’t raise educational standards
The free schools policy is the most ideological of all the coalition’s policies. Trumpeted in the Conservative manifesto, it was one of Michael Gove’s first projects as education secretary. His vision was that thousands of schools set up by parents, private companies and faith groups would spring up in direct opposition to their state-run counterparts – as they did when a similar policy was pursued in Sweden in the 1990s. Free schools, Gove believed, would turn the state sector into a free market with schools competing for pupils in the way shops compete for customers.
Over two years later, the reality is very different from Gove’s vision. His aim was that free schools would educate 200,000 pupils but my estimate indicates they will educate no more than 20,000 pupils by 2015 – and this is a generous estimate because most free schools are very small. Clearly, the policy can never hope to meet the demand created by the recent baby boom with hundreds of thousands of new places needed in the coming years.
Indeed, the 55 free schools opening this week cannot hope to meet the demand of the 78,000 extra school places needed right now. The majority of free schools are small and most of them aren’t in areas where there are shortages. For example, One in a Million Free School in Bradford and the Newham Free Academy have been shelved because they couldn’t find enough pupils. Many others are struggling to find accommodation and have either delayed opening or shut entirely.
Of 17 schools due to open in London, at least 10 are on temporary sites; of the 55 schools whose opening has been trumpeted, 26 will not open on their permanent site.
The policy is not only unworkable but also very wasteful – and in these times of austerity, too. It’s hard to quantify exactly how much money has been spent because a veil of secrecy has been drawn over the policy, with countless freedom of information requests being turned down by a defensive government. What we do know is that nearly 100 civil servants at the Department for Education are working on the policy and that the capital costs for some free schools are between £10m-£20m. Nearly £400,000 was spent on Bradford and Rivendale free schools alone, despite the fact they will not now open. The total cost of the free school project could run into billions.
But it’s not just the huge waste of resources that should concern us. Worse, perhaps, is the fact that free schools will not raise standards overall – indeed, they are likely to damage the prospects of the country’s poorest pupils. Gove claimed that free schools would narrow the attainment gap between the richest and poorest children. However, existing free schools admit fewer poor children than the national average, with figures showing that only 9.4% of their pupils are on free school meals – a key indicator of poverty – compared with a national average of 16.7%. In my borough, Tower Hamlets, the free school – Canary Wharf College – has only 2% of pupils on free school meals when the borough average is 48%. Indeed research carried out by this paper indicates that the majority of free schools are being established in wealthier areas.
While the efforts of those individuals who set up free schools may be commendable, the overall effect on society is to deepen social segregation. Research shows that long-running free school policies in the US and Sweden have fuelled social segregation in both countries.
The policy is fostering religious segregation as well. The British Humanist Association has identified 39 proposals for faith or pseudoscientific schools, out of a total of 102 schools hoping to open in 2013. These include three schools supported by creationists. There are fears that some of these schools will not give children a broad and balanced curriculum. The creationist schools are the most obvious example, but other schools, such as the Steiner Academy in Frome, are also likely to pursue controversial agendas such as discouraging parents from getting their children vaccinated. The Health Protection Agency specifically mentions Steiner children as likely to be unvaccinated.
The free schools policy is a wasteful, ill-conceived and ideologically driven disaster. The taxpayer and, more importantly, our children deserve better.