With proper oversight, free schools and academies could help to create a vibrant and dynamic school system. But there is a danger that the government’s approach is prioritising quantity at the expense of quality.
Over 90 new free schools have opened their doors this term, bringing the total number of free schools in England to 174. Take into account those schools that have been converted into academies, and it means that over 3,000 schools are now free from local authority control.
The academies and free school programme has the potential to be a force for good. The first wave of academy schools, which were created in the early 2000s, put in place a series of strong institutions, serving communities that did not have access to high-quality school places. They have helped to transform inner-city neighbourhoods, particularly in London, which were previously mired by sink schools and middle class flight. Where there is a lack of good school places, it is right that new schools can be set up.
But the rapid expansion of free schools and academies needs to be carefully managed. Free schools and academies vary in quality just like any other sort of school. Some are excellent, some are poor, and some are plain average. Some free schools apply to set up in areas of the country that have a shortage of good quality school places, while others apply to set up in areas that are already well served and there is no appetite for a new school. The government needs a robust system to deal with the creation and performance of these schools just like in any other service.
There are some great examples of free schools – such as the Greenwich Free School and School 21 in Newham, which have hired a pool of highly qualified teachers, created an innovative curriculum and are serving disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Similarly there are chains of academies, such as Ark and Harris, which have a strong track record of turning around failing schools. These should be welcomed, supported and expanded.
But there are also some more troubling examples. Ofsted inspections of the first wave of free schools revealed that a quarter of them were rated either ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’. Pimlico Primary was criticised for hiring an unqualified 27 year old as its head teacher. And last year, 14 of Gove’s convertor academies fell below the minimum performance threshold set by government, while some chains of academies, such as AET and E-ACT, have been accused of low standards and financial mishandling.
The challenge for policymakers is to ensure proper oversight of so many autonomous schools – so that they help to raise standards in areas of the country that need it most. There is a danger that in their desperation to ‘play the numbers game’, the government have prioritised increasing the number of free schools and academies at the expense of putting in place proper quality controls and strategies to manage them. The government’s own figures show that 1 in 5 free schools have been given the green light to set up in areas of the country that do not have a shortage of places. In Bradford, a free school was forced to open a year late because there was so little demand for places – and it failed to recruit enough pupils to make it viable. And the large variation in quality of new schools suggests that they have not all been properly screened. What’s more, a study of schools in London found that when they convert into academies there is a danger they can become cut-off from the networks of support they once enjoyed.
The fate of the charter school movement in the United States could provide some useful lessons here. Charter schools - broadly the equivalent of free schools and academies in England - have been most effective in states where they are regulated properly. In Massachusetts, for example, charter schools outperform regular district schools on almost all measures, helping to raise overall standards. But the state sets a demanding quality threshold for anyone who wants to set up a new school, they prevent providers expanding if there are concerns over quality, and have even revoked some charter licences. They also place an emphasis on spreading good practice between charter schools and regular schools. Compare this to Pennsylvania, which oversaw an uncontrolled expansion of charters - some run by profit-making companies - and suffered as a result. Charters in Pennsylvania have not helped to raise standards in education and a number have been investigated for financial irregularities and poor management.
The lesson from the US is that a network of autonomous schools, run by a diverse range of providers, can help to raise standards – but only if the process is carefully managed. In England, this means the government should stop focusing on the quantity of free schools and academies – and pay more attention to quality. Any organisation wanting to set up a school should have to pass a more demanding quality threshold, and prove that they will be located in neighbourhoods that lack a sufficient number of quality places that meet the expectations of parents.
A more systematic approach to monitoring the performance of academy chains should also be introduced – chains that are underperforming should not be allowed to expand. There should also be closer scrutiny of their finances, with penalties for those who are found to be extracting excessive overheads from school budgets. IPPR has also argued that education experts could be appointed as local school commissioners – monitoring school performance, managing the local schools market, and supporting schools to improve. This function is currently being carried out by a handful of civil servants in Whitehall – but they are too distant and overstretched to perform it effectively.
Free schools and academies could be a force for good in England’s education system – but we need more robust quality controls in place to make that a reality.
Jonathan Clifton is a senior research fellow at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @jp_clifton