Free schools, like the ones that recently hit the headlines in Durham and Sunderland, have been the latest attempt by the Government to radically change the school system. New or changing schools received initial cash injections to encourage them, but their regular funding continues to come from tax-payers. At the same time the Government has moved much teacher training out of universities into schools, and also removed a lot of funding for teacher development. So why have they done this, and why are these policies beginning to fail, causing children and parents so much upset?
What price free schools

We are told that a greater variety of school offers choice to students and parents, and autonomy for heads to instigate improvements. For most people this choice is just a myth. In order to justify the changes, Government continually criticise schools and teachers, using OFSTED inspectors to label some as failing. They also do this to university education departments to justify moving teacher education to schools, despite university courses being rated as the best quality of training and value for money by OFSTED themselves.

The Government rarely admits its more deliberate agenda for education. Just as with the health service, the Government is preparing the school system for privatisation. There are hundreds of large companies across the world desperate to get their hands on the money British people pay in tax for the education of their children. Instead of funding going to students, and front-line teachers, much of it will increasingly be creamed off in chief-executive’s pay and share-holder dividends.

Whereas this might not be problematic for non-essential services such as household goods and luxury items, essential services are different. As the name suggests, they are essential; we cannot manage without them and cannot afford for them to fail, or be expensive – we have seen these problems in our utility companies, and our rail and postal services. Competition isn’t driving the price down; greed is driving the price up and quality down. We cannot afford for this to happen to education.

Competition in human development is disadvantageous to our society – it breeds selfishness. Competitive league tables based on poor data encourages an attitude where parents and teachers only care for their own children, their own school, and forget about others. We need all children’s schools to be good and well-funded. All children should have opportunities to develop and lead a fulfilling life.

We are already losing classroom staff to pay for executive heads on high salaries in newly formed chains of academies. Working conditions in schools are so stressful that it is increasingly hard to recruit and keep teachers, and yet however hard they work to help students in the most disadvantaged areas, they are criticised by government. This enables them to justify changes which allow companies in by the back door.

As the system becomes more competitive, more money is wasted on branding and marketing. As the teachers become less qualified, they can be paid less, and businesses will see them as opportunities for profit. Educated teachers are expensive, but these are not required in a poor quality system. This is why the Government is allowing more and more unqualified teachers into schools and reducing funding for higher level teacher development.

In the past local authorities could share the cost of supplying support services – such as payroll, legal support or maintenance – between the schools in its control, making these basic services affordable. When the critical mass tips and most schools are academies independent of local authority control, all schools find themselves having to pay more for these basic services, and more money is channelled from education into profit.

Do these changes enable any more choice or improvement in schools? The answer is no. Most people would prefer a good school which is funded and run properly to meet the needs of their community. They would prefer that school to have continuity, and not to be under threat of closure and name calling. To have a system which labels and destroys schools at the drop of a hat, like OFSTED can, is highly damaging. There is no evidence that academies have worked, and there is growing evidence that increased power and autonomy, and a competitive business culture, lead to failing schools.

Free schools in particular, by law, can be filled with untrained teachers and have been highly problematic. They add chaos to an increasingly unplanned system, which provides schools for the wrong motives, in the wrong places. Parents don’t want their children to be trained by uneducated teachers. Moreover, class sizes are still not smaller, and if resources are taken by share-holders there is no chance of children being taught in small groups with a personalised education.

The Government wants to fragment and destabilise our school system to justify bringing private companies in, and it is doing it very successfully. We might be lucky and feel happy with our local school, only noticing the difference when it suddenly closes like in Durham. We might begin to notice when we start contributing towards books and paper, or class sizes again increase. As privatisation creeps in, those with money will be able to afford the schools with smaller classes, and everyone else will have to put up with what is left. If we understand the hidden purpose of government policy, perhaps we will argue against it and not allow it to happen.


Professor Bridget Cooper - Director of the Centre for Pedagogy - University of Sunderland - Find an Expert

Professor Bridget Cooper has researched and taught in various Higher Education institutions since 1995:  the Open University, Leeds University, Leeds Metropolitan University and now the University of Sunderland, where she is Director of the Centre for Pedagogy, a research centre which embraces a wide range of research into teaching and learning. Previously she taught a range of subjects and ages in primary and secondary schools, and in adult education, and worked as an advisory teacher on a project to raise achievement for Bangladeshi and Afro-Caribbean students.

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