A series of three interesting posts on a blog called Education for Everyone examines the claims made about free schools by the New Schools Network . (NSN is an organisation offering support to groups seeking to set up Free schools.)
The blog is described as “A forum for debating policies on education promoted by the Socialist Educational Association (SEA)”.
As such it clearly has an agenda not supportive of government education policy, but the posts highlight a number of issues around free schools that are relevant to Stroud’s recent narrow escape (for now) from the imposition of a Steiner free school.
The claims are dealt with one by one and the original posts are worth a look. I have picked out a few of the ways the SEA says the NSN claims are false or misleading.
First the way the free schools are set up; who sets up the school? Not always “genuine grass roots initiatives” apparently.
Among the local groups that apply, (as opposed to large chains) most ”are usually professional, middle class groups, sometimes with political connections.”
The writer also notes that schools promoted by particular religious groups are not always identified as Faith Schools.
How is the “need” for a free school established?
It is claimed that free school groups have to prove they are wanted by parents and students before they are allowed. The post says that “expressions of interest” are collected but sometimes do not convert into applications for a place. In addition, the impact on other local schools is not always taken into account.
Despite Freedom Of Information requests made by the NUT, the BHA and Laura McInerney (this one was lost in a tribunal) the DfE still withholds a lot of information about how decisions are made, and there is a lack of transparency.
NSN maintains that free schools are popular with parents, but according to the writer;
“This ignores the fact that applications systems enable parents to apply to up to 6 different schools for each child – different maxima in different places but never just 1. The real question therefore is how many chose a free school as first choice. This is not provided. The information given by NSN is not proof of being over-subscribed.”
Many parents expressed support for the Stroud Steiner bid initially in complete ignorance of anthroposophy. We do not know how many of these went on to fill in the “support survey” required for the application to go ahead.
I would also add here that since the location of a free school is not decided until after the application is accepted, parents have no way of knowing whether the school will be close enough to their home to be appropriate for their children. A school near enough to walk to is an important factor for many parents, especially at primary level.
In addition to these challenges, the posts dispute claims that free schools outperform state schools, are set up in deprived areas or tackle a shortage of school places.
These last two are clearly not applicable in Stroud where there is no need for more places, and existing schools are performing well. Of course local Steiner proponents such as Richard House who criticise local schools may regard all children who are not sent to a Steiner school as “deprived” – that is the Steiner myth they love to repeat.
The NSN also claim it is misleading to say free schools employ unqualified teachers. But here we find this is indeed the case;
“In all state funded schools, according to the 2013 workforce survey, 3.8% of teachers were unqualified. In academies nearly 6% of teachers were unqualified. In free schools 13% of teachers were unqualified.”
The post counters the argument that the unqualified teachers have “real passion for their subject” by explaining exactly what a professionally qualified teacher brings, and why this is necessary. We know that the main requirement for Steiner teachers is that they have been trained in anthroposophy. If they have qualified teacher status that is a bonus.
Finally the financial accountability of free schools and academies is brought into question with poor monitoring, a reliance on whistle-blowers, a failure to sufficiently address conflicts of interest and a large number of breaches of financial regulations cited as examples.
The criticisms in the Education For Everyone posts illustrate some of the problems with the free schools and academies programme as seen by those on the political left concerned about education, and go some way to explaining how, far from improving education in a given area, they can simply be providing a life-style choice for a few enthusiasts at the expense of existing local schools.
Steiner education is a niche market, admired by a few, and has already sneaked in to some towns by using this programme, helped in part by the suspect claims made for free schools .