A posture on free schools?

A friend of mine used to work for the Conservative party in opposition. He was unlucky enough to have the Schools policy brief when the Tories was going through one of their occasional traumas over whether to make the expansion of Grammar schools the cornerstone of Tory education policy. He bears a haunted look to this day. Whisper the word”grammar” in his vicinity and he gets as jumpy as a first former on Wedgie Wednesday.

This sort of thing used to happen regularly (Tory spats on grammar Schools, not Wedgie Wednesdays). On a separate occasion this resulted in a Conservative policy for schools that involved complete internal freedom for governing bodies to run their school how they liked,  and, at the exact same time,  a state mandated “Grammar stream” in every school.

I used to like this idea, as it involved pleasant images of young grammar streamers being forced into Public School style uniforms,  forced to write at wooden desk complete with inkpots as begowned Latin masters wielded canes to keep them in line, with ruffians running riot outside. (My image of British Public Schools and their imitators are entirely based on Molesworth books).

I don’t remember the media making a point of the basic incompatibility between School freedom and mandated streaming at the time. Perhaps they just felt bad for the poor Tory wonks, forced to find some line between making the party happy and doing something that they thought would raise standards.

As to which was which: We haven’t heard much of state mandated grammar streams recently, have we?

I mention this ancient history because last week new Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg apparently ditched Labour’s opposition to Free Schools. Twigg told the Liverpool Daily Post that:

“On free schools, I am saying that we need to apply a set of tests, that we are not going to take an absolute policy of opposing them.”The tests should be: will the school raise standards for pupils and parents, will it contribute to a narrowing of the achievement gap between rich and poor, and what is the wider impact of that school?”

In other words, a school should be judged by its impact on standards, narrowing the achievement gap and the wider impact on the community. I suspect this last, rather vague phrase is code for if it damage other “good” schools in the area.

This clearly neo-con belief that we should judge schools on how well they improve standards and narrow the achievement gap between the rich and poor has naturally been attacked as a “surrender” by the left. The ever reliable Owen Jones wrote  that he struggled to keep his lunch down while reading Toby Young celebrating crushing his enemies, seeing them driven before him, and hearing the lamentation of the Comment pages.

The real conflict is that Jones believes there is no chance at all that a Free School will raise standards or narrow educational achievement gaps (he points to Sweden for this, but ignores the US). Young on the other hand, suggests that the mere existence of a Free School will raise standards and lower attainment gaps. (“They will, of course” he airily says, writing of Twigg’s proposed test.)

Both of these positions are ludicrous.

Is it possible for  free school to succeed in passing social value tests? Of course. We’re already seeing Academies do just that, and the only fundamental difference is the wellspring for the creation of the school.

If we “oppose” free Schools, we are opposing one of two things – either the ability for parents to start a school,  or the ability of a school to effectively govern itself. Since the latter has been party policy for years now, and appears to be working to increase achievement among the poorest, then effectively a blanket opposition to Free Schools simply means saying that non-state actors must be excluded from setting up schools. Unless they happen to be religious.

In any case what does “opposing” free schools actually mean? If they met the tests Twigg outlined then closing them would be obviously idiotic. Preventing new Free Schools  from opening? Again, it seems irrational to say “we have evidence that Free schools can raise standards, lower attainment gaps and not damage the wider community. So we’re going to stop you from opening any.”

If Jones is right, and Free Schools can only do harm, he has nothing to fear from Twigg’s tests other than a slight delay in justification of his own foresight.

Equally, it’s entirely possible that such a Free School could have a negative social impact. Despite Toby Young’s fond hopes, it is not written in the stars that his free school, or any other, will automatically be a success in lowering achievement gaps, raising standards and contributing to the community.

The evidence is in Young’s own passion for a certain type of education. Young wants Latin, uniforms, discipline and a classical education. Does the Toby Young  who thinks these are so important also believe that the Steiner free Schools, which to the untrained eye represent exactly the kind of “progressive” education he despises, will raise standards by the same degree merely by dint of being free schools? Or does he think there’s a chance, however small, they could be a total bloody disaster? If it’s the former, why is he so keen on expensive uniforms and discipline? If it’s the latter, he must surely concede that the state has a role to play in ensuring that free schools meet the laudable aims Twigg outlines, if only to prevent those Steiner lunatics running mad with taxpayer cash to deleterious effect?

So, in my view Twigg’s tests are a sensible, intelligent way of evaluating what is, in effect, an experiment.

It should satisfy both those who believe that no Free School could ever succeed, and those who believe they will automatically succeed, for both should feel they have nothing to fear from such a judgement.

But there’s one last point I want to make. It’s simple. In this country we have independent schools, religious schools, Academies, specialist schools, free Schools, grammar schools, secondary moderns, and comprehensives. These will soon be joined by UTCs.

With that huge variety of schools, any left of centre analysis of education that sees Free schools as the big problem, when they represent a mere fraction of the various ways education is delivered, is mistaking the process for the challenge.  This is precisely the same mistake the Tories made over grammar schools, finding themselves again and again drawn into the cul -de-sac of an argument over whether a non selective system could deliver good education, when patently the answer was that some did and some didn’t and the reasons  for success and failure were far more complex than the application of a test at a certain age.

It’s entirely likely that Free Schools will succeed or fail for reasons not within the control of any government. The vision of a head, the brilliance of a teacher, the willingness to open up the school to others, the way discipline is maintained, the resources available and the efficiency with which they’re used. the firmness of a governing body in ensuring wide access. All of these will be factors. Not I, nor Toby Young, nor Owen Jones, nor Stephen Twigg can know for certain what will happen at any of these schools.

In that case, the only sensible option for an opposition is to wish the children attending well, set out the way the schools will be judged if we were in power, and wait and see. Any other strategy means adopting the empty posture of either a Young or a Jones.

45 Responses to “A posture on free schools?”

  1. Ron Gordon

    To whom are free schools accountable? In my opinion they are always going to be flawed by this lack of democratic ability. You do not have to be a knee jerk lefty to believe this – it used to be Lib Dem policy too.

    Reply
    • hopisen

      They are accountable to their governors, of course, to schools inspectors, and to the government.

      I do take the point on accountability, but it does strike me as odd that Academies, UTCs, (even the old CTCs), religious schools are all equally not accountable to the LA, but are acceptable, while free schools, are not.

      But again, this is something one can test – are schools operating in a way that harms the performance of other schools, or which hurts the area they are founded in in some other way. (I can for example see this as being more likely in a small town, than a big city, but this depends on how mobile the parens are able/willing to be)

      Reply
      • Ron Gordon

        You’re incorrect regarding religious schools which have local authority governors on them (I am one). I have issues regarding academies and their lack of accountability too so there’s no inconsistency in my approach.

        Nothing will be done about the damaging impact they have on the local area. I can tell you that with such confidence because nothing is ever done about the damage done to the de facto Secondary Modern schools in areas where we still have grammar schools. Look at the list of national challenge schools ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7444059.stm )and you may be surprised at how many can be found in leafy Kent and Buckinghamshire. Double the number in selective Buckinghamshire (8) than in comprehensive Oxon. If Twigg et al were worried about the impact of selection on the wider community then they would first of all drag Kent, Bucks, Sutton and everywhere else into the 21st Century

        Reply
        • hopisen

          your point on selection is of course one of the reasons I welcome the sort of objective tests Stephen is talking about being applied broadly.

          Reply
          • Ron Gordon

            My point is that no matter what sort of objective tests Stephen Twigg has declared we should expect it to make no difference whatsoever. Selection was allowed to remain in place by Labour under Wilson, Callaghan, Blair and Brown why should a handfull of Free Schools not be allowed to transgress the Twigg Tests that Grammar Schools have flaunted for decades?
            Another issue that I think should be addressed is that of the process of policy making. As Mark Ferguson asked the other day what on earth is the point of initiatives such as refunding Labour if policy is going to change every cabinet reshuffle? More significantly for me what’s the point of my membership of the Labour Party if that is how major policy change is done. At least I had a vote on Clause IV.

          • hopisen

            Ron,

            On your domocratic policy making process, Frankly I just feel tht if you are to appoint a shadow secretary of State, you have to give them some policy flexibility.

            If they outrun their brief, there are always mechanisms to restrain them (ShadCab responsibility, NEC, NPF, Conference) but to expect them to just give holding answers for the two years until the policy review reports is, in my view, unrealistic.

            For example, are we saying that Ed Miliband should make proposals about Energy pricing while the Policy review goes on? of course not.

            Further, frankly I don’t remember any clear policy position in the party about hat approach we should take to free schools once they have been created by the current govt. Shadow Ministers have to be able to espond to the facts on the ground as the change, otherwise the job will be even more god-awful than it is already

            (I come at this from a dyspeptic angle. I cannot for the life of me think of a worse fate for an MP than being condemned to being an opposition frontbencher for four years! )

  2. Matthew

    How are free schools funded? It seems odd that expense or relative expense is not one of the criteria used to judge them. Or is their funding rigidly the same as similar non-free schools?

    Reply
  3. Toby Young

    Good post, Hopi. I agree – any assertion that free schools en masse will or won’t meet these tests is purely speculative at this point and such speculation is going to be doubly pointless because Stephen Twigg hasn’t outlined exactly what form the tests will take.

    But I doubt such tests would ever be applied for the following reasons:

    1. As you almost say, but don’t quite, it’s arbitrary to apply a variety of “tests” to free schools, but not academies, trust schools, voluntary aided schools, grammar schools, secondary moderns, UTCs, etc. It would be particularly hard for a future Labour Secretary of State to justify applying these “tests” to a free school set up under the Coalition, but not to an academy set up under Labour, and then attempt to shut down a free school or turn it into a local authority maintained school. It would expose the SoS to the charge of ideological bias.

    2. I’m not an education lawyer, but I suspect that any attempt to do either of the above, if the tests were only applied to free schools, would be challengeable in the High Court.

    3. Suppose one of the tests is whether or not the free school under consideration is having a “negative” impact on a neighbouring school. (You’ve added the caveat “good” neighbouring school, but that’s not a caveat that either Twigg or his predecessor introduced when talking about this “community impact” test.) If that neighbouring school is undersubscribed as a result of having to compete with the free school, and if the free school is getting better results than the neighbouring school and doing more to narrow the attainment gap between rich and poor, it would be non-sensical to protect the neighbouring school and punish the free school. Even putting this consideration to one side, accurately measuring the impact of a free school on neighbouring schools would be nigh on impossible since there are too many factors you’d need to control for.

    4. Suppose the free school, while demonstrably having a “negative” impact on a neighbouring school, is in a Labour marginal – as the WLFS is. Would a Labour Secretary of State risk closing or changing a successful free school in a Labour marginal, given how unpopular such a measure would be? Remember, the parents of the children at a free school are always going to care more about its future than the parents of the children at the nearby school that’s being “negatively” impacted, so any action taken against the free school is always going to be a vote loser. But it would be non-sensical to apply the “tests” in safe Labour seats but not in marginals. Therefore they’re unlikely to be applied at all.

    5. For all of the above reasons, I think it far more likely that a future Labour Secretary of State will do nothing more than stop any more free schools being established and allow existing undersubscribed free schools to fail. Anything more would be politically imprudent. For me, that’s the worse case scenario. In reality, I suspect that Stephen Twigg, if he became SoS tomorrow, would simply alter the conditions under which free schools can be established – and possibly re-brand them “community academies”, or something – but not block voluntary groups from setting up schools altogether, not least because allowing voluntary groups to set up schools is always going to be cheaper than handing the task to local authorities or entrusting it the DfE. You mention the figure of £12m as the total capital cost of establishing the WLFS. If that turns out to be the case – and we won’t know the final figure for at least a couple of years for a host of reasons – it’s less than one third of the average cost of setting up a new school under the last Government’s BSF programme (£29m), partly because voluntary groups like mine provide their labour free of charge.

    In short, free schools are here to stay, something Stephen Twigg and the rest of the Labour leadership have clearly recognised. All this talk of “tests” is just a fig leaf to dress up the Party’s U-turn.

    Reply
    • hopisen

      Toby,

      I suspect that you’re right that any test you might chose to apply to a free school would equally have to apply, certainly to any other new school, and almost as certainly to measures which impact an existing school.

      This makes sense to me both politically and legally. (though I’m no expert on the legal aspect it strikes me that if a SoS acted against a free school that had unfair admissions policies but not against an Academy with similar policies, that would feel very odd indeed)

      Of course, I don’t have a problem with this anyway, since I think an admissions code which encompasses academies would also suit any free school the state should be funding.

      Similarly, suspect intervention base on Standards would and should be consistent. I wouldn’t even want a school in LA maintained sector to have different standards to be judged by.

      The duty to perform should be common, (though it probably likely that as “outliers” a free school would show more deviation from norms, and thus attract greater scrutiny. Not meant pejoratively, merely that increased variety likely leads to increased variance of impact).

      So yes, in effect, I’m arguing the correct way to judge free schools is in exactly the same way as we judge other schools. Stated likely that, it feels rather obvious. It may have a useful outcome though, in that a rigorous assessment of how well all schools meet the standards Stephen is talking about would be very useful. Failing VA schools, or Sec moderns that don’t do well for example… jsut as much a failing/coasting free schools

      However, I’m probably a greater advocate of intervention when we see indicators of schools failing/coasting, and my worry is more that some free Schools will be allowed to slide on standards because of a fear of apparent intervention.

      I’m genuinely interested in how you see likely impact of free Schools with which you ideologically disagree on teaching style. The Steiner point not a glib one (if I’d been glib, would have asked why no Dartington Hall Free School!).

      You have very different educational philosophies, and while let a thousand flowers bloom is all well and good, is there a point where you feel there’s a chance that some schools are actively harmful? If so, how do you propose the state assess, decide and act on this?

      As you say, the third test is somewhat vaguer and thus more tricky. I think we’d need to hear more from parents and heads to know exactly how one can judge impact on community.

      In essence though, I see this as simply a recognition of the need for FS admissions to be managed so no creaming/segregation occurs.

      The implication in applying the tests evenly, of course is that if a FS is performing brilliantly on admission and attainment, while an existing school is failing, the community interest test might well lead to the “old” school” closing.

      I suppose the answer to your last point is that if you see standards increasing, admissions fair, attainment gaps closing (not just in yr school but in locality too) and the wider community benefiting from existence of your school, then yes, your school should have a pretty sustainable future under a Labour government. I mean, why wouldn’t it!

      Failure however….

      Reply
  4. Paul Newman

    Conservatives often felt protective of Grammar Schools because they attended them. Being lectured on class privilege by Polly Toynbee when your only chance of a different life was the Grammar system really niggled . It was as much emotional and doctrinal and has passed with age .
    We have seen recently (OECD) that New Labour`s Education Policy , as we all knew ,was a catastrophic failure at secondary level , with vast funds producing no improvements, whatsoever, overall. This at a time when comparable countries are racing ahead . Worse still educational achievement became even more polarised .
    On the other hand improvements at Primary level are considerable
    I think when you think about what to do we have to dispel the notion that the status quo is good enough.(Whereas with the NHS I`d say there is much to lose, with education we have a car crash and for Labour to sit on its hands will not do.

    For me any policy should be judged on these grounds
    1 Does it take power from the NUT and give it to parents
    2 Does it allow teachers to fail and succeed and be rewarded for either as appropriate ( Currently they are national hate figures )
    3 Does it foster discipline and transparency in results un mediated by the educational establishment ( so you can throw all your measures in the bin … no-one believes a word of it any more )

    You may trust parents to drive up standards in fact to demand them , given a chance . I can see that Free schools , by allowing choice and differentiation (and weakening unions ) makes some progress along the way but it is the effect of competition and parent power driving up all standards we have to tap. How did anyone ever think that frustrating the people who care about their children , to pursue equality was ever going to work ?

    Reply
    • Edward Carlsson Browne

      Are teachers national hate figures? I can’t recall when YouGov last did a poll of trusted occupations, but I don’t think teachers normally rank with the journalists and politicians.

      They’re perhaps not as well liked or trusted as doctors, but they seem to do reasonably well for a profession whose best known union is led by Christine Blower.

      I do very definitely agree with you that secondary schools are where the effort needs to be concentrated. My mother trained as a primary school teacher in the mid 90s and these days is a head and SCIT teacher trainer, so I’ve picked up a working understanding of pedagogical methods at second hand. The advance in methodology over the past fifteen years has been enormous.

      In contrast, secondary school teaching still relies upon the idea that the teacher is a specialist and therefore knows what to do. When you consider how many PE teachers do a bit of history or geography, this theory rapidly becomes untenable…

      Of course, major reforms in secondary school teaching will require a showdown with the NUT – half the reason most of the change was concentrated in KS1 and 2 is that primary school teachers have a much less bolshy reputation. That said, it’ll have to be done in a slightly more subtle way, because 18 months after the confrontation you’ll need the other side to grudgingly admit you were right and use the new methodologies.

      Reply
      • Paul Newman

        Thats actually very interesting , as I have children at Primary I have found that enormous improvements have been made since my day and whilst I can see waste everywhere, at least we have the school we need
        Local parents , and I know many , look at the secondary situation with dread.

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    • oskarsdrum

      What nonsense! It is clearly right that parents have plety of opportunity to influence the direction of their children’s school, as they generally already do, though.no doubt there’s room for improvement here or their.

      But the idea of “transparent results” is a total fantasy. With ofsted and league tables we already have an incredible apparatus of would-be objective measurement of schools’ progress. But what is plainly apparent to anyone who understands the dynamics of an educational establishment is that even the best-designed measures of performance are arbitrary and lead to teaching for exams, skewing local priorities to national diktat, and most importantly undermining the possibility of vision leading the school.

      What all this misses out is an understanding that teaching is not a simple process where new can new structures can wring more production out of workers on the assembly line. What’s vital is an environment where teachers develop *as professionals* – which doesn’t preclude accountability but which does preclude the useless applications of statistics which drives mainstream political debate on schools.

      Should suffice to add that the average NUT member works 50+ hrs/week in tough conditions for a modest salary (relative to qualifications). not sure what complaint parents would really raise about that.

      Reply
  5. Peter Johnson

    Interesting post, Hopi. I understand that free schools are state funded and need to pass [apparently] rigorous tests prior to becoming approved. 24 opened last month alone I believe.

    As you pointed out, free schools are simply a new brand of educational delivery within a diverse range of methods presently available.

    Personally, I’m neither particularly worried or enthusiastic about them.

    Whether they fail, succeed or exceed is of course anyone’s guess at this stage but it’s nevertheless a leap of faith for any parent to be the first to commit their most beloved and precious asset in life, their child, to a school with an untested system of education.

    Also, I don’t understand what happens to those schools already in an area where a free school has started up? Given there’s only so much money to go around presumably they will get less money from the state as well as less pupils?

    The other ingredient not mentioned here is time. While a new school, like a new restaurant, may have the right menu, ideas, passions and creativity behind it to make it succeed initially, it can lapse into complacency over time.

    Perhaps the real secret behind the success of any school is the constant, ceaseless, relentless demand by those running it to take risks by promoting fresh ideas and new thinking, encourage creativity and seek higher and higher standards rather than eventually conclude, through their own complacency, that the answer always lies in yet another type of school?

    Reply
    • hopisen

      Peter,

      You hit I think on the best objection to free Schools. – that they are policy for a tie of plenty, not a time of scarcity.

      They rely on the existence of a certain level of surplus places – as otherwise every new school would result in a catastrophic loss of income for neighbouring schools. Now, I don’t mind the “ineffiency” of this – because that flex is what makes choicework, and gives schools that aren’t doing well time to turn themselves around and so on.

      But there’s no denying it requires an extra cost. Whether this is “wasteful” depends on what that extra cost delivers. In my view, trying to introduce free Schools at the same time as holding down investment in existing schools is problematic.

      I’d rather this were happening in a more generous funding settlement that gave existing schools more ability to plan for their future expenditure (and meant doing FS didn’t mean stopping capital spend).

      You can argue this either way- I’m sure’ toby’s response would be to say, “well, you should have funded more academies in government then.”

      Reply
  6. Tom Miller

    “If we “oppose” free Schools, we are opposing one of two things”

    Then what makes them any different to academies? I wonder why (academies advocate) Andy Burnham opposed them with such virulence?

    The point about free schools and their difference from what went before is that they deliberately do not include Twigg’s test. Twigg is therefore either being disingenuous about this test, being disingenuous about supporting free schools, or failing to understand what any of it actually means, context given.

    None of these things represent a good start.

    Last of all, Owen opposed Academies, so he is in a perfectly acceptable moral position to critique any of this wonkery.

    I suspect that the idea of the private sector having more control over a local school than its own elected council might have some bearing on that.

    This is all about rephrasing ‘parental accountability’ as ‘parental accountability as long as it is not democratically expressed’ (i.e. replacing democratic choice and accountability with customer choice and little accountability) – then criticising people as ridiculous when the point is raised.

    In fact, the point is perfectly legitimate – and Blairite engagement with it only ever goes as far as evasion.

    Someone from the party right, please have the courage to tackle the argument.

    Reply
    • hopisen

      1) As I say in my post, very little makes hem different from Academies, other than the manner of their creation. Also, it’s not that there are no tests applied for setting up of FS at the moment. We may not feel they are wide enough, but they exist

      2) I don’t mean to pick on Owen, but you remind me he had a great piece in the indy recently about how independent school parents were wasting their money. To which one can only reply – do tell Laurie Penny, Johann Hari, Seamus Milne and George Monbiot, next time you see ‘em, eh?

      As for opposing Academies, I’m sure Owen did. I don’t criticise his consistent moral fervour at all. it clearly runs very high. But is he now suggesting Academies be closed down, even where the evidence suggests they are doing precisely what he wants to see happen?

      Alternatively, does he fancy telling parents at successful Academies that the school is being taken over again by the LA?

      Again, I’m not sure what this “opposition” actually means once the school is established, other than trying to establish metrics by which a school can be judged.

      Finally on your democratic accountability point, I confess to a certain confusion. Are we really saying that the only body a school can be democratically accountable to is it’s LA? Does a national government and it’s agencies have no democratic authority at all?

      Reply
      • Tom Miller

        Well, on curriculum issues in particular, accountability from national government is further than it was under the comprehensive model.

        But why are we arguing that more accountability to private sector interests, and declined (but superior) accountability (hmm) to central government both trump the will of parents as expressed through a local and democraticprism such as council elections?

        Once again, even if not directly tackled, this criticism should be taken a good deal more seriously.

        The new policy embodies the worst centralising excesses of ‘bad’ Fabianism and the old left, which is then used used to empower the worst privatising (and thereby doubly centralising) traits of Blairism.

        Even then, though magnificently important, that part is secondary to me.

        My real issue though are things covered by Twigg’s caveats, which the current incarnation of school re-wiring (free schools) explicitly does not cover – primarily admissions. In my area in NW London, there is selection going on a long way out of catchment areas. Free schools are demonstrably targeting families from better off backgrounds.

        Cuts out the grammar school middleman of academic ability and goes straight for the throat. Reprehensible

        Are we supposed to accept this (and a closed-door , 245 hour u-turn no less) uncritically?

        Last of all, having discussed the deeply suspect organisational benefit and impaired transparency and accountability, what remote political benefit does this deliver to Labour or the wider left? This debate will not even be understood by most parents.

        Far better to empower them with a local, transparent and reasonably immediate remedy for their shool performing less well?

        Reply
        • hopisen

          tom – what’s yr reaction to what Toby says below re admissions- seems it covers much of the ground yr concerned by – be interested in yr critique.

          Reply
      • Edward Carlsson Browne

        “Alternatively, does he fancy telling parents at successful Academies that the school is being taken over again by the LA?”

        Would there necessarily be widespread objections to this? I don’t believe the suggestion was ever made that LEA control made the predecessor schools bad, merely that academy heads needed extra freedom and shouldn’t have to worry about the LEA looking over their shoulders.

        Given that a certain sort of personality type predominates amongst academy heads and given that it’s much easier to maintain a high level of attainment than to rise to reach it, I’d think you could make a decent case for transferring successful academies back to LEA control after a decade or so, just to check that there is nothing rotten in the state of Denmark.

        Reply
  7. Toby Young

    Thanks for replying, Hopi.

    As you probably know, free schools are already subject to the School Admissions Code so have no more latitude when it comes to admissions that an Academy.

    In the course of devising the West London Free School’s admissions policy the steering group thought a lot about how to minimise any harmful affects the opening of the school would have on neighbouring schools. It’s one of the reasons we decided to admit 30% of our pupils according to a lottery within a three-mile radius and 15% via a lottery within a three-to-five mile radius. Not only is this fairer than admitting 100% according to straight line distance, it also means we source our pupils from within a geographical footprint that is more than 60 square miles. That’s a good way of diluting the school’s impact on any neighbouring schools.

    If a Labour Secretary of State did apply a “community impact” test to all schools, not just free schools, he or she would quickly discover that the schools most guilty of “cream skimming” are those comprehensives in affluent pockets that admit the majority of their pupils according to straight line distance. Many Left-wing critics of free schools who object to them on the grounds that they’ll lead to “cream skimming” and social segregation should, if they’re being consistent, object to nearly all high-performing comprehensives on the same basis.

    There are various solutions to this problem that Labour-controlled local authorities have tried in the past. From the age of 11-14, I went to Creighton Comprehensive in Muswell Hill and, at that time, Haringey bussed in children from less affluent parts of the borough to ensure a comprehensive mix. It proved unpopular and the Council has since abandoned that policy with the upshot that Creighton – rebranded Fortismere when it merged with a neighbouring school – is now one of the highest-performing comprehensives in England with a catchment area that extends no more than half a mile from the school gates. I don’t know exactly what sort of premium you have to pay to rent or own within the catchment are, but suffice to say Fortismere is now a predominantly middle-class school.

    Brighton has been operating post-code wide lotteries for some time now, but they haven’t proved popular either and will be outlawed by the new School Admissions Code by 2013, assuming the government’s proposed changes pass muster during the present consultation.

    As a Conservative, I take the view that the state, whether in the form of a local authority or the Department for Education, shouldn’t engage in these social engineering exercises. In the absence of intrusive and unpopular regulation involving parents being told by the state where they have to educate their children, schools will inevitably reflect the social, religious and ethnic divisions that already exist in our society. To blame schools for exacerbating this – or, worse, causing it – is to wildly over-estimate their impact. As Wilkinson and Pickett point out in The Spirit Level, schools are channels into which existing inequalities flow; they don’t create that inequality. The biggest influence over how well a child performs in school is family background.

    By the same token, if a Labour government did what many on the Left would like it to do – abolish private schools, turn the remaining 164 grammars in England into comprehensives, force faith schools to accept children of all faiths and none, etc – I doubt it would have much impact on reducing segregation. Existing divisions would just exist within schools instead of between them. The assumption underlying the Fiona Millar/Melissa Benn position is that schools could have a major impact on reducing inequality, an assumption that flies in the face of all the social research evidence. They often hold out Finland’s public education system as a shining example, pointing to lower levels of social and economic inequality in Sweden, but to image the latter is caused by the former is naive.

    I’m not advocating that the admissions arrangements of taxpayer-funded schools shouldn’t be subject to regulation – they should – but the Admissions Code shouldn’t be used as an instrument to achieve social outcomes that the government of the day regards as desirable. Some goes for local authorities like Haringey and Brighton and the admissions arrangements they impose on their community schools.

    For a Labour Secretary of State to introduce a “community impact” test, whether on all taxpayer-funded schools or just free schools, would be attributing more influence to schools than the evidence suggests they have. If you want to reduce segregation and promote equality, you need to tackle their root causes, not waste your time tinkering with individual schools.

    Reply
    • Peter Johnson

      Toby,

      “I doubt it would have much impact on reducing segregation. Existing divisions would just exist within schools instead of between them…”

      Interested on what basis you come to this conclusion as the experience of integrated schools in Northern Ireland would suggest that this is not the case?

      Reply
    • hopisen

      toby,

      intersting stuff. I’ve no desie to pick you up on the admissions code, as a) you likely know ore about it than me b) I suspect we’re getting into the sort of criteria that would have o be used in any test of social impact.

      Where I’m surprised though, is yr opposition to “social engineering”. TBH, I cna’t think of any admissions code that wouldn’t represent social engineering of one form or another. Even accepting your proosition that Schools are the wrong place to do any social engineering, how would you ensure, for example, that successful academies located where schools were failing were to get their intake from those in the locality, if not via some mechanism of social engineering.

      It just strikes me that you go out of your way to show the positive impact the admissions code has had on how your own school operates, then deny that such measures can be socially beneficial more generally.

      (On a broader point, Education has been a tool for social engineering at least since Plato, so I’m not sure it’s a particularly conservative position to be against it!)

      Reply
  8. Brian Hughes

    The history of secondary education in England and Wales over the past hundred or so years is one of continual reorganisation and upheaval. Meanwhile slightly baffled teachers parents and pupils have struggled on as best they could. Free schools seem to be just another chapter in this tragicomedy.

    The results are almost unbelievable. In our little town, for example, we have one highly selective co-ed grammar, which takes pupils from across the county and beyond, two top league comprehensives, one mediumish ditto and a brand new “faith” academy which is an amalgam of a bottom-of-the-league comprehensive and an RC one.

    Meanwhile just ten miles down the road Gloucester has four single sex slightly less selective grammars (to which pupils from across the county go), a couple of co-ed comprehensives, an all-girls ditto and a fairly new “faith” academy which is an amalgam of two bottom-of-the-league comprehensives one of which was co-ed, the other all boys.

    What a shambles it all is! The theoreticians and politicians have much to answer for. But the local bus companies love it, loadsa buses to run carting children across the county every day. And the middle class children whose parents know how to nudge the system do OK.

    How we love fudge, bodge, reorganisation, meddling, tinkering and wishy-washy compromise in England. Look at our 57 varieties of local government.

    And in education, of course being a people that believes to a man in that curious modern faith known as markets, we have an elite whose parents can afford to send them to the best public schools. We love a larf don’t we “public” schools! Almost as hilarious as Toby Young’s suggestion that the Tories don’t believe in social engineering.

    At least the French have the decency to select their elite on the basis of academic ability and then to pack them off to leurs grandes écoles at the age of about three months. Maybe that’s why their civil servants and elites seem to understand a tad more about how to run a mixed economy and about which areas of life are beneficially susceptible to consumer choice or localism than any of ours appear to…

    Reply
  9. Paul Newman

    I recall in Freakonomics they mentioned that there was afar better correlation between your attainment and the school your parents wanted you to go to than with the school you actually ended up with
    I also know personally of two school who , under the same regime have rapidly declined when an inadequate headmaster has been put in charge.

    Reply
  10. Erica Blair

    Could Hopi Sen join Toby Young – and the rest of his right-wing chums – in the Tory Party as soon as possible.

    Reply
    • hopisen

      Erica, I’ m not sure you’ve really thought the consequences of your “tell people who support Labour to join the tories” strategy through.

      nice GO reference though.

      Reply
  11. Rob the crip

    Phew with a name like Blair it would be difficult not to smile.

    But this sadly is Newer labour now with Miliband the red, yep but only if he wears lipstick.

    Reply
  12. Paul Newman

    Eric Blair did join the Tories in the end, in all but name :)Is there something in the name ?
    Anyway these were the distinctions Hopi drew , between academies *(good) and free schools (bad) in his previous stab at this subject

    1. Nature of schools
    in general, academies were set up to replace failing schools, or meet recognised need for new schools. Latterly, this has extended to more ‘upgrading’ of maintained schools, because either the money avail is attractive, or because their is sense new leadership is needed. In any of these cases, the coat overhang argument is not as significant.
    2. Overall financing of schools and leas.
    Simply put it is easier for lea’s and other schools to respond to pressure of presence of competition in short run when there is budgetary space. One way to look at this is to say it’s wasteful. The other is to say you don’t get school choice without some school place oversupply. This is crux of my prob with free schools – I have no prob with competition with lea schools, but you can’t cut their legs off and tell them to run.
    3. Academies are expected to deliver high quality education and exist for a long time. As far as we can tell so far, ther’s little similar pressure on free schools, merely an expectation standards will improve. But if anyone can set up school, and close it again should things not work out. This will happen, under even best plan. So someone will need to ready to pick up pieces. But if Maintained schools have downsized, and lea is runnng on empty, this could be hard to do.

    Does seem to have drifted centrewards a little to me ?

    See
    http://hopisen.com/2010/free-schools-arent-free/

    Reply
    • hopisen

      If we’re curating, wrth including this -

      “Now, I’m not opposed to other providers than the state running schools and providing choice. But I believe such a policy works best when a) The funding is additional to the current system, providing extra capacity. b) Resources and school set up are explicitly focussed on providing higher quality schools in areas with low educational attainment, and to reduce educational segregation. c) Is backed up by tough inspection and attainment regime.”

      Basically, I don’t mind Free Schools as an idea – but I’d be much keener if there was a real drive to set them up specifically to target and address issues of educational underperformance, and with clear evaluation based on raising standards/closing gaps, rather than simply on being “free”.

      In many ways, I’d be content with some variant of the academies programme, with proven sponsors helping parents groups though the maze -and ensuring that there is more effort put in to creating good schoolswhere needed most.

      http://hopisen.com/2010/evidence-based-schools-policy/

      Reply
      • Paul Newman

        If by ‘curating ‘you mean organising antiquities I think it is fair of me to point out that the aeons that have passed are only those between Gove coming up with the Policy and Twigg endorsing it . You were only pushed to that admission by my criticism that you many eloquent attacks on Free schools could equally apply to Academies .
        Much of the same thinking is there but the emphasis is adjusted so at to support the diametrically opposed position. Fancy ….
        Let us say , the facts have changed , I have no problem with you adjusting your views ., it goes with inhabiting the difficult and thankless territory you have chosen and which I rather admire actually ,
        Much easier it would be to sing to the choir but that doesn`t suit your style

        Reply
  13. Smash

    How on earth do you design a meaningful test that can prove whether or not a free school has a detrimental effect on neighbouring schools? Just using attainment data won’t give you even half the story. If a local authority sets up a new school, it is in their interest to name sure all schools thrive. Free schools are rational agents with points to prove.

    Reply
  14. CharlieMcMenamin

    An observation or two from your left.
    1. The Admissions Code is a busted flush: it really very rarely stops any school doing more or less exactly what they want to do, though it might, very occasionally, make them go about doing what they want to do in indirect ways.
    2. Schools have an inbuilt incentive to maximise the prior attainment/higher class background of their intake as this is the single best predictor of the final results at 16 or 18. They can do this in a variety of ways – not offering anything much in the way of a vocational curriculum after 14 can, on occasion, be just as effective as straightforwardly bending the admissions rules themselves.
    3. Admissions policies: Toby is right that there is no ‘perfectly fair’ admissions criteria which is universally applicable – it all depends on the surrounding sociology and geography. No individual school can make fair judgements about it – it is, by its very nature, a matter which cries out for local government co-ordination. Remove – or water down to the point of invisibility as per the Admissions Code – that co-coordinating role and you are left with a free for all, which will see the creeping re-introduction of selection throughout the land.
    4. Selection by definition widens the achievement gap – it makes the selective school look much, much better, but only at the cost of making the surrounding school look worse of course.
    5. The fine detail of school governance models really isn’t the point. It’s a deeply dull subject. There are lots of different kinds of school, and a reasonably strong argument that, whatever the constitutional status of a school, managerial decisions and (some) formerly centralised budgets should be devolved to school level. But not at the cost working against one of your criteria, that of narrowing the achievement gap: topslicing monies designed to pay for, say, excluded kids or those needing SEN help to hand to selective schools ( which tend not to have many such kids) will only worsen the position of the people who do need help.
    7. It’s bloody nonsense to suggest that any government will be able to fund the opening of any kind of school, anywhere, willy-nilly, simply because this or that group asks them too. Schools need to be opened where there are more children than school places. The current policy is therefore a short term fantasy. But it is a politically helpful fantasy because it means the Tories can use the free schools movement as a Trojan horse to destroy comprehensive education.

    Reply
    • Paul Newman

      Selection by definition widens the achievement gap – it makes the selective school look much, much better, but only at the cost of making the surrounding school look worse of course.

      Yes but only by allowing the better pupils to achieve more it may , or may not raise all standards . Whilst no-one would want to return to the arbitrary eleven-plus a more graduated and fluid form of selection is essential and the left wing instinct to equalise downwards is especially hard to take from its sponsors , most of whom did not need the social mobility selection also allows and which the left also dislike .
      I don’t doubt for one second that selection is the goal and that the NUT is the enemy . Privatisation on the other hand is a bogey man

      Reply
      • CharlieMcMenamin

        There’s honesty: accepting that this is actually about selection.

        Selection lowers standards – if you check the overall results of Kent or Buckinghamshire against neighbouring counties which don’t have selective systems that’s quite clear.

        There is no ‘left wing urge to level downwards’, only a Tory impulse to describe any spark of fairness in the system this way.

        Reply
  15. Erica Blair

    @Paul Newman

    Orwell in 1949

    ‘My recent novel is not intended as an attack on socialism or on the British Labour party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable and which have already been partly realized in communism and fascism.’

    Hopi Sen is a supporter of the Labour Party only in the classical Leninist sense, “in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man”.

    The true home for Sen and his dwindling Blairite sect is in the Tory Party. We will prosper without their ‘support’ and turn our backs on warmongering, privatisation and sucking up to the bosses.

    Reply
  16. Paul Newman

    Erica , what a novelist says about his novel is not always to be trusted and I believe you were just saying that it was possible to be a Conservative and yet support the Labour Party…still lets not digress I was only pulling your chain.

    Reply
  17. Brian Hughes

    Stephen Twigg’s written quite well on this topic in today’s Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/18/labours-teaching-mission and makes the splendid point that “24 new free schools [shouldn't] distract us from the 24,000 other schools” which is, sort of, one of the things I was trying to hint at above.

    It’s quite amusing that he styles himself as “Ed Miliband’s new shadow education secretary” rather than as Labour’s ditto – something for the “Labour isn’t Labour nowadays” fretters who pop up here and elsewhere to get their teeth into perhaps.

    There’s also a jolly good letter in the same paper au sujet de notre pathetic energy market which incorporates a finely crafted, if slightly pompous, phrase first seen in my earlier comment on this very blog. But modesty prevents my including a link to it…

    Reply
    • Paul Newman

      He also includes the controversial claim that that what matters is in the class room . A great thinker this Twigg

      Reply
  18. bert

    The greatest scandal that any government can foist upon a population is the degradation of educational standards – and ALL governments are guilty of this disgrace.

    The Left started the rot in the sixties and seventies, and the Tories continued this idiocy when they scrapped the high standards of the ‘O’ level for the egalitatrian codswallop of the GCSE.

    Liberal politicians (and bloggers) scratch their heads and wonder why hundred of thousands of home grown British school leavers are unemployable.

    Here’s a solution – scrap exams, give every school leaver an A* – and let employers sort the mess out.

    Reply

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