Why Gove Can’t Have It All Ways on Free Schools

7th April 2014

Gove was so convinced free schools were the answer to a ‘crisis’ he pushed the legislation through for them in just five days, using a process usually reserved for dealing with terrorists and war.

Many of us questioned whether handing out new schools to people with little experience of running them might be a touch problematic. After all, running schools is quite hard – and though newness helps set good habits, new schools quickly become old ones.

Did any of this concern make it into Gove’s speeches? Nope. It was all: “We’ve established 24 free schools – overwhelmingly in areas of educational need – with the longer school days, demanding curricula and brilliant leadership our toughest areas need.” and “I am delighted that free schools are up and running”.

Despite constant protestations, did Gove insist on rigorous application processes? Or proper consultation with local communities? Or transparent funding arrangements? Nope.

And, why not? Because the only message we were ever given was that the schools would be brilliant.  Until last week, that is, when it became very clear they weren’t.

The first clues came in the final lines of a press release on Thursday about a Free Schools rated ‘outstanding’ rating. After paragraphs of schmatlz, the release named all the recently inspected ‘good’ schools (there were few enough to name) and then intimated the grade was impressive given it was achieved “despite (the schools) only being open 18 months”.

But…but…… Wasn’t the whole darned point of Free Schools that their newness was their magic? That allowing brilliant innovative people to open new schools would provide a better education?

How can you justifying spending a billion pounds if your only outcome is: “these might be brilliant schools…. eventually?”

What’s even more annoying about this rhetoric switch is that it would have been completely unnecessary if the government had acted reasonably.

Teachers know that building a good school takes time. We’re aware you can’t pitch up in a temporary building, throw kids and adults together and magic yourself to achievement. That’s why most teachers (including myself) advocated for new schools to open in areas of need, delivered in close consultation with the community, and not ‘bragged about’ as the best thing since sliced bread.

But what did we get? For four years we’ve watched as the Education Secretary denigrated established schools, diverted funds from others in dire need, pushed through half-cocked legislation, stole resources from Children’s Services, systematically obscured the public’s right to information about the schools (including names of applicants, the application process, and the impact on other local schools), provided Free Schools with mocksteds’ and protection from the take-overs required of ‘failing’ local authority schools, and yet – after all that – the government is now asking the public for patience and tolerance because these schools are new? Are. You. Kidding?

It is not fair to judge all Free Schools on the failings of a few bad ones. But it is entirely fair to judge the government for their poor foresight and implementation of this policy.

Four years and a billion quid later and what do we have?  A handful of good schools and the odd outstanding one, most of which are operated by academies already running schools under the last government. ARK, for example, began in 2004. They are not the Coalition’s to claim.

A shift to academisation might yet prove to be a good thing. It is right that our schooling system should have a national, transparent way of opening new schools, of monitoring performance, and taking-over or closing failing ones. But Gove’s unthinking belief in market-driven free schools meant he ignored the advice of those who knew better and his policy is now in peril. It’s a shame he can’t just admit it and move on. Would be a nice change to reading it between the lines of yet another DfE press release.