The cost of free (schools)

Public schools in the UK and elsewhere face many challenges including, but not limited to shortages of funding and problems with low attaining students – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Faced with deep problems in public schooling there are two basic approaches that can be followed by organisations (including governments) and/or parents:

  • try to improve public schools (state schools, in UK terms)
  • do something different

‘Do something different’ includes the likes of charter schools in the US or ‘free schools’ in the UK, voucher schemes and home-schooling. Fundamentally, what these all have in common is reducing support for public schooling and taking away from efforts to improve publicly funded schooling for all. I have no objection to someone withdrawing their children from public schooling and sending them through a suitably accredited/inspected/approved school as an alternative – as long as they pay for it themselves. The funds raised by government shouldn’t be diverted from public schools. Any shift of funding is effectively government support for disintegrating and dismembering the public school system.

By these terms, the current UK government’s policy (does not apply in Scotland, thank goodness!) is clearly going to be harmful to the public school system (via BBC):

“…parents very dissatisfied with their state school can opt out and set up their own school.”

“But there are two reasons why free schools are unlikely to be the best answer to this. First, there are very significant set-up costs, both in time and energy from the founders, but also in the straightforward sense of acquiring premises.

“While currently these are being generously funded by the government, this cannot continue if the policy matures and spreads.”

Money and time are spent on creating new schools where there are schools already. A public school with poor-to-middling performance sees a number of its students disappear, perhaps the better performing students with the pushier parents. With fewer students there will be less funding – and probably an even higher proportion of problem/disadvantaged students than before. Things are not looking good for the public school. The free school presumably benefits (at least initially) from much higher levels of parental involvement and the additional government funds. Involvement and funding that could have been used to improve the existing school instead.

Frankly, this is ideologically driven nonsense.

In all of this, the push from the government to shift schools from public schools funded through their local authority to directly funded academies is even more ridiculous. Michael Gove recently used extremely inflammatory language, claiming that critics of the academies program are “happy with failure“. This is clearly offensive when some of those critics are parents who don’t want very disruptive changes imposed on the schools their children go to without very good reason.

Indeed, like charter schools in the US, the evidence on whether academies improve schooling in the UK is very far from clear cut – as this helpful fact check summary from Channel 4 shows. (See the recent report from Mathematica Policy Research for more on the impact of charter schools in the US).

In reality, the really significant difference between ‘normal’ schools and academies are that

  • academies have a little more power over selecting students (regular schools have to take everyone)
  • academies will be able to buy services on the open market, rather than through shared use of services provided (or procured) by local councils

It seems to me that it is the second of these differences that is really driving the government here: while schools will remain publicly funded, they will increasingly be managed, maintained and supported by private companies making profit whether or not individual schools flourish or falter.

Charter schools, free schools and academies all play on parents’ natural desire to get the best possible education for their own children, while ensuring that many more children are deprived of the best possible.

4 thoughts on “The cost of free (schools)

  1. John Sutherland

    Its hard to extricate the furious politicking of the liberal left from the furious politicking of the conservative right. In democratic terms the Tories have a majority of the Westminster seats in England, so can do what they want to, as can the SNP in Scotland. Its the great power and failure of democracy – it lets numpties in.

    One of the strange facts in Scotland is that we have 3 education systems at prim and second level: state atheist, state catholic and private. The worst performing school are state atheist, then the best state school are the Roman Catholic ones, but the private ones out-perform the state schools by miles. Just simple numeric facts.

    Given a choice, middle-class parents, such as read The Groaniad and listen to the Beeb, would all send their kids to the best schools. Nobody would send their kids to Inverclyde Academy High if the could get them into Largs Academy or Glasgow High. And I don’t think we are morally permitted as parents to mess around with our children’s education for the sake of some untried philisophical ideas.

    I’m not sure the Tories are right. But, I’m not sure that we are getting it right in Scotland either. The gap between such as Lenzie and Port Glasgow schools increases every year. Perhaps the problem is educational researchers and their obsession with qualitative analyses and case studies. There is almost no hard-and-sure facts to base educational policy upon.

    The biggest problem, imho, is that Call-me-Dave, Govey, Boris-the-Hair, Millibrain and the rest are just too thick to be trusted with running our country’s future citizens’ factories …

    Ta for raising the issue of your blog, btw!

  2. Daniel Post author

    John, Largs Academy is a non-denominational (atheist in your terms) state school. Four of the five top state schools in Scotland are non-denominational too.
    “There is almost no hard-and-sure facts to base educational policy upon.” – actually, there are some. Take a look at the book ‘How People Learn’

    One issue is that where evidence doesn’t match ideology, ideology usually wins.

  3. Ben

    Daniel, as you recently mentioned about universities possibly needing to go through a rebirth, so too, should the whole public schooling system.

    1. Daniel Post author

      Hi Ben… from one Learning Games site to another ;-)

      Schooling and HE are quite different markets – everyone *has* to go to school, they don’t get to choose to. They also have to live at home (unless their parents choose boarding, but that generally isn’t an option for the vast majority), so choice is limited very much by financial means. The free school system is reducing funding for public schooling, while creating an apparent (but dysfunctional) market that results in poor use of public monies, where e.g. the introduction of a new free school results in public schools with lower student numbers but fixed overheads to cover.
      If public schooling needs improved, improve it. Introducing a faux market that will reduce the ability of public schools to address the needs of those with the greatest needs is not a good route to go down…

      As for the university rebirth… a whole other kettle of fish…


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