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Are Coalition ministers the biggest threat to free schools?

March 22, 2012 by
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

I have to admit to feeling ambivalent about the Government’s free schools policy.  I am all for fresh thinking about schools but think it is the content of teaching and learning, and the relationship between schools and communities which are most important, not who owns and governs.

But, giving a talk a few days ago about the need for greater innovation in schools I stumbled on a new argument for Michael Gove’s policy. Arguably there is still remarkably little innovation in state funded schools. Secondary schools are, after all, multi million pound knowledge businesses. Yet ask most head teachers to point you in the direction of research and development in their institution and you will get a blank look. There are many reasons for this but one less often cited than the constraints of the national curriculum, OFSTED inspection and declining budgets concerns risks and ethics. Children only get one chance at schooling. But a cliché of innovation is the need to be willing to get things wrong and learn from failure.

The ethical dilemma is whether it is reasonable for a set of pupils to be the guinea pigs for risky innovation. It may just be that health care is seen as more scientific than learning, but while the idea of clinical trials (which involve a control group being given a useless placebo while the experimental group is subject to a unproven treatment) is accepted in medicine, I can’t see it going down very well if a head teacher were to describe such an experimental frame to their parents. Guy Claxton can point to hundreds of action research projects based on the use of his Building Learning Power techniques but, whatever their insight, I don’t think he would claim they have the rigour of a clinical trial.

The point about free schools is that many of them are created on an explicitly innovative basis. Therefore parents who sign up are agreeing at the outset to their children being part of an experiment. This greater level of sign-up might enable free schools to be more risk taking, with successes and failures from which we can all learn.

The other argument for free schools is more conventional but I found the context in which it was expressed to me rather poignant. It was in a meeting with senior officers of a local authority. The discussion focused on the consistent under-performance of schools and pupils in their area. Unlike some head teachers and some ministers, I found the group open, self-critical and driven utterly by achieving change rather than individual or organisational self-aggrandisement.  On free schools one of the officers said: ‘the theory is that the threat or reality of free schools will shock coasting schools out of their complacency and force them to try seriously to improve. We could do wiith some of that’.

The poignancy lay not only in a local authority – so often the target of thinly veiled contempt from education ministers – speaking with a grit and determination that even Sir Michael Wilshire would find hard to match but in something else they shared with me. This was their consternation that a free school had been approved in a village which currently houses a good school providing places for all local children. ‘Why’ one of the officers plaintively asked ‘would they want to set up a free school within 100 metres knowing that this must mean we go from one thriving school to two struggling for survival? The benefits of competition can’t possibly outweigh the problems created’.

Moving to teaching and learning, this story in the Guardian also suggests potential loopholes through which creationism and other strange ideas could be given a free school foothold.

Although most free school applications are turned down, rumours continue to swirl around that senior Department for Education civil servants are deeply concerned at the regularity with which ministers over-rule official advice and approve bids which don’t fully meet published criteria.  Add to this the less than satisfactory process by which a departmental contract was awarded to the New Schools Network and the strong  impression is created that proper process, due diligence and the public interest is being sacrificed in the pell-mell pursuit of free school numbers.

Sooner or later these problems will gain news traction either through the exposure of embarrassing information, public outcry or the failure of free school projects. At that point a policy with real potential could be caricatured as a reckless ideological gamble. And this explains the question in my headline…



  • Tom Legge


    A thoughtful piece somewhat let down (in my view) by the following:

    Your link to the The Guardian piece seams to infer (or at the very least not clarify) the fact that the proposal in question is exactly that, a proposal. As has been pointed out by numerous people including Sam Freedman and NSN, Free Schools are not allowed to teach Creationism and that being the case, the proposal is destined to stay just that. I’m surprised The Guardian hasn’t made reference to the proposal some wag made for a Satanist Free School some time back – even more incendiary…

    Also, if you are going to criticise the New Schools Network, You should get their name right.


    • Matthew Taylor

      Thanks Tom I have updated to reflect these important corrections

  • Ben Gibbs

    I wish it were true that many free schools are explicitly innovative. Sadly though, too many are being set up to do the opposite of innovate, and to recreate a setting that is familiar to the proponents from their own school days, and which is thereby assumed to be better than the horrors they perceive in the system they misunderstand as too liberal. You’re spot on though, that the policy does offer a unique opportunity for professionals to innovate, if only they have the thick skin, the vision and the balls to grasp it … see for more!

  • Asher Jacobsberg (@AsherJac)

    Are parents who are signing their kids up for free schools really looking for innovation (let alone for their kids to be the subjects of an experiment)? Most free schools seem give out the message that what they are going to be doing is traditional, tried and tested and couldn’t possibly fail.
    I think there is experimentation (with the success and failure that must be part of it), but I don’t think it’s explicit at all, especially not to parents and students.

  • Indy Neogy

    It’s worth noting that both education and health policy are dogged by a “London analysis bias” which leads to some of these problems. I’m now a London resident, so this isn’t a complaint about London receiving more attention per se, but how the hard case of London makes for bad national legislation.

    In London, there has been a great overcapacity of hospital provision – so for years we’ve had (and continue to have) national health policies that base solutions on the assumption that there’s plenty of overcapacity, close by.

    Free schools involve different assumptions (more about under capacity and easy travel) but the village cited is a great example of what happens when policy is made using faulty geographical assumptions.

  • ad

    The alternative to using some children as guinea pigs for an innovation is using every child as a guinea pig by rolling out the innovation everywhere. Which option is more reckless?

  • Indy Neogy

    Surely the responsible thing is to undertake innovation with the understanding that it might not work – and that if the life chances of the children involved are not to be damaged there needs to be resources and rule changes on standby to help them recover from misplaced innovation by adults?

    Children basically get one start in life at the moment educationally. There is legislation requiring that youngsters take national exams at a specified age. There is no allowance made for failures of the education system – yet innovation must involve the chance of failure. When you know a child whose life has been scarred by this unjust set of circumstances, then you know how callous the system is.

  • Tim Stirrup

    Making sure that the innovation we want for the free school proposal we are working on was fully explained to and fully accepted by parents and the local community was a key reason for delaying our application to 2013.

    Having a stringent set of requirements is in our minds a good thing, and it is good to see the rumours of relaxing these requirements are being challenged.

  • john pearce

    An excellent piece. I, and many others, are very concerned at the lack of strategic thinking in the atomisation of our education system. The big worries are about unregulated whims of funders of free schools and some academies morphing the curriculum. Thankyou and keep up the good work!

  • http://www, Graham Rawlinson

    Thanks Matthew, mistakes and all, this is the kind of challenge that should drive some new thinking about learning, hopefully that better learning is the goal not better teaching, whatever that means. Clinical trials for the health service are not a good model for decision making, they may have some value but the benefit vs cost is usually pretty low and often negative in my view. We end up with ‘treatments’ which harm and absence of treatments which may work. The clinical trial system is based on a very narrow scientific process, appropriate only for the most serious/catalytic kinds of life death issues. I think Guy Claxton’s work is way superior as a scientific process in the broader sense, but you could always ask him.
    There is plenty of scope for innovation in schools, yes, the awful National Curriculum tends to be a UXO rather than a real curriculum, not much can grow where it has deposited its anti personnel fragments, except for the brave permaculture gardeners of minds. But every good teacher is always conducting experiments, as the class walks in the door plans have to change, you sense the mood and you adjust, hopefully the inspectors are not around to see that you did not follow your teaching plan, or if they were you have to hope they are wise enough to understand why.
    And yes, geography is everything and London is a terrible basis for planning nationwide education. Every parent knows your school options are very limited by local travel, unless you dispatch them for others to care for, many places only have the eco-system for one good size secondary school, and some places, as stated, only for one good sized primary school system. The belief in free markets for everything is quite insane.

  • Fiona Nicholson

    Home education has been the most innovative option for my family. This is my 18 year old’s website. He’s never spent a day in school.

  • http://www, Graham Rawlinson

    Hi Fiona, yes, for some home education will be the best option, but why I ask myself cannot local schools and home education act in partnership, does it always have to be one or the other? My home health programme is a partnership with my local GP. I don’t see him much, as I am lucky, but it is good to know the option is there! I would like an any age any subject/theme, a school is an extension of a local library and skill centre? And a playground, sports centre, music centre and community centre.

  • Angel Garden

    This is a refreshing look at free schools and I love the comparison of experimentation in education and health; it’s inspired. Of course very few people object openly to the double blind testing of drugs lucky enough to have the right financial backing, but it doesn’t sit at all right when thinking of the ‘one-shot’ our children supposedly get at education.

    Ad said “The alternative to using some children as guinea pigs for an innovation is using every child as a guinea pig by rolling out the innovation everywhere. Which option is more reckless?

    For educational recklessness, look no further than New Zealand. The willingness to innovate and just change everything led to Tomorrow’s Schools, in 1989
    in which they did away with the Local Authority management of schools and devolved the running of state schools to the Board of Trustees, liaising directly with the Ministry, in an attempt to give schools back to the community.

    It was a fantastic money-saver because basically now the bureaucracy that had been the job of Local Authorities, was suddenly being done by an elected set of parents, for free. But that always depends on having a BOT who knows basically what and how to organise and are prepared to do it. This has, perhaps predictably, led to one of the largest gaps in achievement in the OECD.

    There is also the obvious problem of the creation, not just of cliques, but of actual hierarchies of parents within schools.

    And this is an educational landscape that may not be dissimilar in many ways to the one now evolving with UK free schools. This similarity is further heightened by another reckless innovation in NZ, this time from 1975,the Private Schools Integration act, which again reflects free schools in that it allowed schools of ‘special character’, to become state funded.

    This has given a lot of power to the Steiner movement in New Zealand, for example, which has recently been awarded their own system of exams so that once they’ve entered Steiner education, (and apart from national standards, which the PM said they could just advertise as something they didn’t expect kids to pass), children have a ‘protected path’ to University by virtue of the special assessment, the General Certificate in Steiner Education, or GCSE, (I kid you not), to be assessed solely by the Steiner Federation with no Government oversight at all.

    It’s a Steiner conduit, from pre-kindergarten to University with no meaningful testing against the rest of the population whatsoever, and it’s state-funded.

    Whatever you think of that, perhaps you may wonder how such a supremely entitled movement might react to any problems, and we do have to report, because we did put our kids into an NZ Steiner school, that the dynastic nature of it was so extreme, that when we had to try and work with the school on countering the truly awful bullying, such that other children were being taken out after years of trying to address it, the Manager actually expelled our bullied child, and her sisters, to simply make the problem go away. Following that he was swiftly promoted up to the top of the Federation.

    We have worked for nearly three years to find some law that would address this situation and eventually the problem was picked up by the Human Rights Commission. At the second invitation, from the Tribunal Director, the school have finally agreed to mediate.

    This is significant because:
    a) the International Forum of Waldorf schools, which both NZ and the UK are signed up to, states that it is a defining feature of Waldorf education that ‘discipline is dealt with by pedagogical methods”.
    b) they did not stop the bullying, or separate the bullying children, and expressed the opinion that to do so would damage the bullying child.
    c) the Manager has stated to the Director of the Human Rights Tribunal that due to the special character of a Steiner school they need to be able to be very discerning about families, in his own words, to ‘discriminate”.
    d) To our knowledge, a Steiner school has never agreed to external mediation for any body, and certainly never with Human Rights.

    Our experience in New Zealand has shown us what true dynastic education can look like, and it’s not pretty. In a country that already has a reputation for cliqueyness this model has the power to really max that out..

    A lot more thought needs to be put into what kinds of power relations are being set up, in my opinion, because although lives can be damaged by over-bearing school institutions, it’s not that easy to stand up to them. It’s a strange and sobering experience to meet people wherever you go that were spat out at some stage by a school that has managed to survive, in this case because of the steady influx of foreigners into the area, as is the case with this particular Steiner school.

    Whether individuals slink off or stand up and shout about it, once state-funded, the Government are not likely to advocate for the casualties of a system of education that they’ve written into the statute books.

    That’s why right now would be a good time for an investigative journalist to contact Steiner global HQ and find out how these different facts about pedagogy and discipline, including bullying, fit together, if anyone can point me in the right direction, I’ll be most grateful.

    Whatever else those politicians are up to, Mr Gove’s actions are certainly ensuring the rise of dynastic education in the UK, and that’s why I think the title of this piece is spot on.

  • http://www, Graham Rawlinson

    Hi Angel, as an educational psychologist I am so sorry to hear about NZ and bullying at a Steiner school. As a general supporter in principle of much of what goes on in UK Steiner schools I am sure Steiner would be very concerned about the bullying any child gets. There has been a lot of good work in psychology services in the UK about bullying, in partnership with local authorities. I know that the Hampshire Education Authority developed codes of practice which are based on a friendly ‘zero tolerance’ approach, that is it is 100% not tolerated but dealt with as a problem for the bullied child and the bully in context.
    The wider issue is school governance, and the contradiction is always one of local focus or distant expertise, both of which can be hugely positive or criminally negligent. Where an LEA works as wise counsellor providing mentoring between all parties based on known best practice (and actually the true tragedy is that best practice is really well known and has been for decades), the LEA is a highly cost effective operator, things can always go wrong and a corrective function within the system will always be necessary. The best Head Teachers provide just that much professional mentoring to staff, enough to correct drift or error but not too much to destroy the necessary creative act which teaching has to be (to allow the natural creative act of learning to flourish).
    Coming back to issues of standards in health and education, we now have absurd attempts at micro management of people’s health while not seeing that the big ship is heading into the rocks. Is it not a strange thing that while every emphasis is on healthy eating and exercise obesity rises relentlessly? While people are advised against a long long list of what not to eat and what not to do like sitting down for 8 hours a day (most office workers in the 1930’s would have been sitting for 10 hours a day but they did not get fat) the problem just gets worse. All over the world.
    While we try to micro manage the learning of young people through compulsory curricula we ignore the truth that most people want to learn everything, if they are not put off by the education system!
    We should be naturally healthy, we should be natural learners, and left alone we are, we only need a little help on the way. Left alone also means not bombarded with ‘food’ adverts.

  • oldandrew

    Schools have been pretty much free to experiment on the children of the working class for 4 or 5 decades now. It doesn’t need free schools, it just needs politicians willing to turn a blind eye to what happens in schools in deprived areas.