Six Predictable Failures Of Free Schools – Part 4

16th December 2010


In the BBC Documentary, “Start Your Own School” the programme-makers followed Toby Young, a parent in West London, on his hunt for a building in which to house the Free School he and fellow parents were proposing.  Throughout the programme Young seemed genuinely surprised at the difficulty his team faced in securing such a property, even though their search was in one of the most expensive and densely populated areas in England.  Equally, in a recent article for the Telegraph, Young also lamented the difficulty in finding a Head Teacher, complaining about mistakes in CVs and application letters.  To add to his misery, both parts of Young’s plan – finding a building and a Head Teacher – are time critical and must be be secured well in advance of the September 2011 opening if the school wishes to be an immediate success.  By misunderstanding just how difficult it is to find required resources in a short period of time, Young is exhibiting two further ‘predictable failures’ of those who start Free Schools.

Unfortunately humans wildly overestimate their ability to achieve in the future.  We have an innate tendency to believe ‘something will turn up’ when we are faced with limited resources.  This is one reason why people are so poor at acting environmentally even when presented with clear facts about the impact on lives in the not-so-distant; we ration that, in all likelihood, someone will get us out of the mess.  This leads us to consistently believe our future will brighter and better than our past, and the past of others (see work on ‘Positive Illusions’ by Shelley Taylor if you are not convinced).  Such estimations mean new school leaders ignore the fact that local schools struggle to get Headteachers, or afford new buildings, and believe that these resources will ‘somehow’ appear at their new school.

Sarason, the US academic who spent 25 years studying Charter Schools (the equivalent of Free Schools) shows how dangerous these overestimations can be when applied to schools.  For example, the original US Charter Schools were encouraged to open in any available building.  This led to schools opening in disused offices, warehouses, even shipping containers.  At first this was seen as a realisation of American initiative and ‘triumph over adversity’.  But, when unreliable contracts meant schools had to keep moving, or poor conditions led to poor health and high levels of staff absence, many schools suffered terribly.  Without well-designed spaces, secured for long periods of time, the uncertainty took its toll on students and, particularly, on staff meaning these schools were the most likely to suffer high staff turnover and the associated damage to student relationships and achievement.

Young is therefore correct to focus on his building as a priority, but he should not be surprised or dejected by the difficulty he will face in securing one.  Instead, we would urge all Free Schools to give themselves adequate time to secure their learning space, and time to re-design the space before the learners arrive.  Creating learning opportunities for hundreds of children is difficult at the best of time, it is almost impossible if teachers are constantly moving children between rooms and edging around decorators.

Sarason also points to the straightforward issue of money.  He writes: “If there is anything in common in applications for charter status, it is the explicit emphasis on the individual attention that will be given to students” and he explains that it is on the basis of these offers that many parents enrolled their children.  However, money is always tight in schools and with the additional costs of opening, many Charter schools simply did not plan for students presenting unique learning difficulties or special needs.  These students then needed services that the school could not provide as their already over-burdened staff did not have the available hours, and no cash had been set aside to fund extra services.  The parents then complained and sometimes successfully led campaigns to discredit the schools reputation and leave it floundering in its early vulnerable years.  One can only imagine how this impacted on staff and student morale.  Needless to say those schools were more likely to under-perform in their first decade.

Over-promising without the cash to support claims is, according to Sarason, common among Charter Schools, though he blames the US government as much as he blames the schools.  Governments, after all, are equally guilty of over-promising and though Charter Schools were hailed as ‘innovators’ the money to support their goals has fluctuated dramatically in the US.  There is no reason to believe the picture in England will be different.  Although the Coalition government are committing funds to Free Schools at present, it may be that a future Labour government is not so accommodating. When the 1997 Labour Government abolished the money going to independent schools for ‘Assisted Places’ this dramatically impacted schools’ business plans where they had mistakenly assumed Government money would be continuous.  In the US, where Charter Schools planned astutely, using the third and private sector as a support, they have tended to flourish.  Those who relied on continual Federal handouts were those who have since faded away.

There is also a final word of caution implicit within Sarason’s work. Given that time and money are precious many school leaders turn to young teachers whose energies are high but whose price is lower.  One teacher on the board of a Charter School explicitly told Sarason how their school hired teachers in their early twenties because “they are less likely to have family obligations that would keep them from making the enormous time commitments necessary”.  In these situations, teacher burn-out becomes inevitable and contributes to the high numbers of teachers who leave the profession within 5 years.

For the individual Charter School the loss of a single teacher may seem unremarkable, but in the longer-term such schools will struggle to find middle and senior leaders.  Those wishing to retire into consultancy or part-time roles will struggle to find adequate replacements and they may find the schools they have spent their entire career working to build become defunct when they move on because their school cannot find a replacement.   Again, this is because leaders are guilty of believing that the future ‘will solve itself’. It won’t.  Burn-out can cause terminal health problems and damages the likelihood of your school sustaining itself in the long term.


Key Recommendations

  • Survey the property market before submitting your Free School application and allow at least twelve months for a property search if you do not have a site already secured.
  • If local schools struggle to recruit, assume you will have the same problem.  Give yourself adequate time to find the right staff.
  • If you promise individual attention, then budget for it.  Work with co-ordinators of specialised needs in your local borough to find the average school spend on services.  Add 10% so that you can honour your promises.
  • When writing financial plans write an annual ‘co-option’ plan detailing your strategy in case of being subsumed under the local authority.
  • If you are struggling to do something today, assume that tomorrow it will get worse if you do not tackle the subject soon.  It is unlikely to get better on its own, no matter how much we believe that to be true.
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. You can download the full book here