The free school concept was championed by education secretary Michael Gove after the formation of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in 2010. Such schools were approved under the Academies Act of the same year. They operate in a very similar way to the government-funded academies and are managed by independent charitable trusts. A considerable number have been opened, particularly in economically deprived areas, by teachers, businesses and voluntary groups who’ve been dissatisfied with the standards of state-run schools.
Today (May 2015) there are 400 free schools, either open or successfully proposed. Many are located in deprived areas of London. However, the model has become increasingly popular and new free schools have opened across the country, from Lancashire to Cornwall. David Cameron has been particularly impressed by the progress of free schools and has pledged to open another 500 by 2020, subject to Conservative re-election in May.
Cameron said, “We [the Conservatives] are the only party that’s opening up the education system so we can get more good places for your children. You will see the continuation of the free schools programme at the rate you’ve seen in the last three years.”
Different skill sets
Critics of free schools have pointed out that they aren’t required to hire teaching professionals with NQT status. However, it has also been argued that free schools offer great flexibility as experienced professionals are able to impart knowledge about specialist subjects. Free schools don’t have to follow the national curriculum. On the other hand they are expected to provide all students with broad and balanced learning experiences. They focus on sport, music and the development of essential professional skills.
It is, perhaps, to be expected that many parents are opting to enrol their sons and daughters at local free schools. Indeed, a recent Guardian article revealed that large numbers of Blackburn-based parents have taken the opportunity to register at the Tauheedul Free School in the hope of boosting their children’s grades. There is some evidence to show that the establishment of free schools has the effect of raising standards at local state-run schools: that educational competition is good for teachers and local communities.
Unfortunately there is still a fair degree of resistance and scepticism regarding the establishment of free schools. Perhaps surprisingly, Labour party representatives have argued that it would be better to invest time and resources into developing the existing state-schooling system. They’ve claimed free schools create unnecessary local divisions and are most likely to be seen as a means of education for the privileged. (It’s worth emphasising here that there has traditionally been a separation between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in the education sector.)
The National Union of Teachers has also taken the opportunity to highlight concerns about the emergence of free schools. They claim these schools undermine teachers’ professional status and their pay and conditions. Free schools have also been criticised for limiting the amount of planning and school management carried out by the local authorities. Some argue that the Conservatives are losing sight of the most important educational issues.
Up for grabs: the election is nigh
Of course the debate about free schools must be viewed in light of the upcoming general election. The Conservative and Labour parties are taking the opportunity to outline their educational stances and appealing to the respective sets of voters. it is unlikely the issue will be given as much media coverage during the second half of 2015; however, parents and independent organisations will undoubtedly press for the opening of free schools in the hopes of raising educational standards. What do you think?