The Six Predictable Failures of Free Schools – Part 2

13th December 2010

In his book “The Creation of Settings & The Future of Societies”, author Seymour Sarason details how people setting up new ventures are blind to the experiences of those around them.  Though young couples may have watched their own parents struggle and they are acutely aware of the divorce rates, they do not ask questions about why marriages fail instead they commit to their own marriage believing things will be ‘different’ even when  the history of their relationship so far and the relationships of people around them clearly suggest otherwise.  This phenomena is known in social psychology as ‘False Uniqueness’ and means most people consider themselves ‘’better than average’ at, say, driving or remaining calm in difficult situations..  The problem of false uniqueness is that it blinds us from thinking we can learn from our environment – instead we believe that people’s misfortunes are their ‘own fault’ but that we are somehow different and exempt from those problems.

Free Schools fall foul of believing they are unique and superior for two reasons.  Firstly, in order to justify the resources needed to set up a  new school leaders feel they must be offering something ‘new’. However, there are often good reasons why traditional structures first existed. For example, in the UK during the 1970s, several schools did away with timetables and defined subjects believing this would ‘unleash learning’.  However, many schools soon realised that knowing the location of pupils and teachers was an incredibly helpful thing.  In fact, it helped with the learning.  Timetables, it seemed, were necessary for many (though not all) schools to best help students learn.

The second reason Free Schools often believe they are superior is because they tend to be created in reaction to local ‘bad schools’. In this context opening a ‘good one’ is a unique and superior thing to do.

Sadly, what new school leaders often don’t – but should – do is ask, why are there no good schools in this area already?

Very often there are external constraints that leaders of new schools do not yet know.  For example, balancing the needs of different cultural groups in schools may be important for local integration (as a Youth Offending Team worker will tell you) leading the school to offer a very diverse curriculum that doesn’t provide totally for any one group but is the compromise that leads to maximum learning among the intake.  It is therefore crucial that all stakeholders look at local schools and find out the reasons WHY they are not doing well and plan in detail how your school will overcome these issues.

That said, we must not be afraid of innovation in schools, I am excited about some of the new models I have seen.  But all innovation in Free Schools should be for a purpose rather than to provide a conveniently marketable ‘uniqueness’.  The easiest way to check whether your Free School is purposeful is to ask yourself the following question: Is our school the best way to solve a genuine problem

In some cases the answer will be “Yes”.  For example, many parents regularly move due to employment.  Getting a state education for your children if you are in such an occupation is difficult.  Schools teach subjects in different ways and to different exam boards.  Building a Free School chain with a standardised the curriculum and a clear virtual learning tool would help solve this problem.  It would enable people to keep their children in the state sector while still achieving highly.   The school would be unique in its offering, but its uniqueness is complementary to current provision rather than considering itself to be ‘superior’.

If a Free School cannot show that by opening its door it is genuinely the best solution to a real problem, then local schools will feel snubbed and misunderstood.  This is not a helpful situation given that you will be facing the same external constraints as those schools and may need the goodwill of the community in key areas such as getting planning permission, negotiating admissions codes, extra-curricular provision and positive marketing in the local press.

When speaking to many Free School leaders they believe they will courageously ‘fly in the face of the local establishment’.  While in some ways admirable, their courage is akin to a person setting out to Everest believing that motivation, rather than technical skills and proper equipment, is all that’s needed to arrive at the summit.  Courage alone is not enough.  Goodwill needs to be spread across the community (as I will discuss in Blog Post 4) otherwise you will face hostility inevitably leading you to have even greater negative external constraints than those currently causing the ‘bad schools’ down the road.

Some Free Schools also pertain to be solving a problem when really they might not be best placed to do so.  West London Free School flies dangerously close to this line with its emphasis on Latin.  Now aware of parental demand for the ancient language, local Ealing schools are now all offering Latin.  In my view, the problem has been solved.

A second, better argument for WLFS is the looming school-place deficit in Ealing.  But it is not for several years meaning the best solution would be to carefully plan another school, responsive to local issues, ready for 2016/17.  This might even be a Free School and one that teaches Latin but a school opened before then is more likely to find a hostile reaction than one that seeks to provide a complementary service that solves a community problem.

In order to avoid unhelpful feelings of superiority or uniqueness, it is my strongest advice that those wishing to start Free Schools speak first to all local stakeholders, and particularly to teachers and leaders at all nearby schools plus the Local Education Authority.  Go without an agenda and listen to what they say are the local problems. Perhaps there is a crisis shortage in places (as there is in East London from 2012), maybe a school is needed for excluded students, or students whose sporting or acting talents regularly take them away from school.  If your school can solve a problem identified by these knowledgeable people, rather than trying to compete for innovation’s sake, you will be able to better justify your place in the market.  In doing so you will face less obstruction from the community on key issues such as finding a property, admissions and local press reaction.

Many potential Free school leaders do not want to hear this advice because they are afraid of the negative attitudes they will encounter.  You probably will encounter resistance, but it is better to face that now than to pretend it isn’t real and – by listening to local people – you can work out how best to market yourself. Opening a school is not for the faint-hearted, if you can’t bring yourself to go and speak to other HeadTeachers, this game is not for you. And if that still doesn’t convince you, bear in mind that the main reason why marriages fail is because there was a clear conflict issue that both partners knew before they married (e.g. only one partner wants to have children) but both chose to ignore it because of the pain it would bring to discuss it during the romantic ‘pre-wedding’ phase.  It is far better that you know in advance any local prejudices so you can fight those beforeschool opens rather than predictably walking into failure.

Round-up of Key Recommendations.

  • Read the OFSTED reports of all local schools (primary & secondary), identify the problems they face and carefully plan how your school will deal with each issue.  Always assume these problems will affect you too.
  • Ask yourself: “What problem are we solving?” and market your school as a complementary solution rather than as a unique or superior institution.
  • Develop strong relationships with all local stakeholders by working with them to solve common issues.  This will reduce the negative external constraints that you could face if trying to be competitive or combative.
  • Seek out criticism.  Change your plans if, and only if, that criticism shows a way that you are not best solving the problem you wish to solve.  If you and your team tend to avoid situations where you will be criticised, your long-term success is at risk.

Tomorrow:   Dealing with Issues of conflicting goals and the inevitable power struggles once in-fighting and favourtism kick in!

** 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]  **