Six Predictable Failures Of Free Schools & How To Avoid Them

12th December 2010

If 90% of businesses fail, along with 50% of marriages, then why should a Free School be any different? 

I am always surprised by the lack of sophistication in the current Free School debate.  On one side, the pro-Free School movement point to the 30% of schools in the US and Sweden that make huge progress for their students.  Against them, the nay-sayers rightly point out that 30% of Free Schools in these countries fail miserably.  Yet in these arguments about whether or not the policy is correct, no-one seems to be asking the question: under what conditions do Free School succeed?

This is the most important question because regardless of my philosophical position on Free Schools, they will be implemented.  My concern, therefore, is that 30% of them DO NOT fail.  Spending time arguing about the relative merits of the policy is not the way to make this happen.

Thankfully, Seymour Sarason — the recently deceased American academic — spent 50 years studying education reforms in America and over 25 years looking at Charter Schools, the US version of Free Schools.  His body of work is vast and provides specific detail on the failures and successes of schools, yet I am frightened by the number of people I have met who are currently advising on Free Schools but have no knowledge of his work.

The essence of his message to potential school builders is simple – Do not under-estimate the complexity of your situation.  For, as he demonstrates through many examples,  “the enthusiasm, the fantasy of enduring goodwill and a belief in the accomplishment of ‘success’ blocks out attention to (or mammothly downplays) the predictable problems of any venture”.  That is, in the rush to do something exciting people inevitably forget to make realistic plans.

Firstly, they forget the small details.  While it is exciting to decide on ‘ethos and vision’ or designing uniforms, people forget to consider how many dinnerladies they will employ, and where exercise books will be stored.  While these things seem small, taking care of the small stuff is the difference between a good and a mediocre school.

But even more important than the practical elements are the gaping issues that people overlook when creating any new setting – whether that setting is a marriage, a merger or a new school.  These six items are:

  1. Feelings of superiority & uniqueness
  2. Potential external constraints
  3. Core group and the goals
  4. Issues of power and authority
  5. Time as the enemy
  6. Resources

Taking two of these issues each day I will explain why Free Schools are particularly susceptible to these problems, and I will suggest ways on how best to create a Free School that avoids falling into entirely predictable traps.

Tomorrow’s Blog:  Ask yourself:  “Are we solving or creating a problem by building our Free School?”


** This series of blogs was the first step in developing “The 6 Predictable Failures of Free Schools… and how to avoid them.” A short book by Laura McInerney intended as a handbook to Free School founders and those interested in the topic. It is due to be published by L.K.M Consulting in mid February 2011. For more information email [email protected]  **


Quote taken from “Questions you Should Ask About Charter Schools & Vouchers”. The “six factors” are from “The Creation of Settings and the Future of Societies”