Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Swedish lessons: are new free schools the answer?

Published By: The Independent - 08 Jun 2010

Sajid Hussain, 37, is convinced inner city children need a different kind of schooling. It should concentrate on English and maths, develop good character, engage with parents, support students emotionally and have a longer school day. He says it’s “a crime” that half the pupils in this country leave school without basic qualifications, and that this is not about ability but aspiration. “I could easily have been one of those children. As a working class boy growing up in Bradford I was failing at everything, but my Dad pushed me and I won an assisted place to an independent school and went to Oxford.”

Now he is a senior school leader, training to be a head, and planning to run his own school. Or possibly schools. “Turning round a failing school is such a slow process and it’s so hard to change the culture. If you start from scratch you can address children’s learning needs much better.”

That’s why he is a keen supporter of Tory education plans to set up ‘free’ schools – one of hundreds of parents, teachers and others who have already registered an interest, according to the New Schools Network, an agency set up to support those who want to run schools. Another supporter, Mark Lehain, 31, a Bedfordshire maths teacher, also has a powerful school vision and an even more powerful commitment to the entrepreneurial spirit. “If plumbers can set up a plumbing business, why can’t a teacher set up a school?”

However both Hussain and Lehain have yet to make detailed plans – and that’s where the problems might lie. Because, those who have looked closely at the Tory policies say that under them the shining educational idealism of parents and teachers could well end up masked by a growing numbers of sink schools, contract cut-out schools and bargain-basement private school chains.

Luke Sibieta, senior research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who has examined Tory plans for per-pupil funding of education, says there is a need for a much clearer idea of costs. “They don’t accept that the policy has any money implications. Yet it’s very difficult to redistribute existing funds, and they are also going to need extra capacity in the system to support their model. They are talking about 220,000 extra places. At least in the short term that has to mean more funding, but they are also in a situation where they are going to have to reduce the amount spent on education. So if you want a load of extra capacity, what is most likely is that you will need far more for-profit schools.”

Proposals to free up the planning regulations in order to allow schools to be founded in premises such as office blocks could also make it easier for low-fee schools to get going. Not surprisingly advocates such as Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools and chairman of the Cognita school chain, have been urging the Tories to include them in their plans. Meanwhile existing independent schools have found that they are worried about the social consequences of freeing up schools. “Of course we’re not against more choice and competition,” says Gillian Low president of the Girls’ School Association, “but we are first and foremost educators, and we are concerned about the other schools. You could have sink schools that sink down even further.”

Sandra McNally, education and skills director at the Centre for Economic Performance, at the London School of Economics, says this is a real worry. She and a Swedish colleague Helena Holmlund recently published a paper on Swedish free schools, raising doubts about whether the model would make much difference in the UK –published just as the former head of Sweden’s school inspectors said that free schools had not, in fact, improved Sweden’s school results. “The Tories have mis-represented the case for free schools by only quoting the good part of some very mixed evidence from the US and Sweden,” says McNally. “There are serious issues around this. It might raise standards but I am concerned about social mobility. Will the pupil premium for disadvantaged children be large enough to attract people to want to run schools in poor areas? If not, non-free schools will have to pick up all the social problems and they will also struggle to get teachers because they won’t be able to pay as much as other schools.”

Rachel Wolf, founder of the New Schools Network, refutes the idea. She says competition will help all school rise, although she agrees that the most likely model in her changed school landscape will not be parent- and teacher-led schools but partnerships between existing school trusts or commercial companies and local groups. “The providers are already there and not all parents want to be involved in all the decision-making. But there will be a lot more diversity and a lot more child-centred learning and a lot more schools that are smaller and appeal to parents more.”

Jon De Maria, who is part of a long-running parents’ campaign to get a new secondary school in Wandsworth, south London, says that is fine by them. “We’re pragmatists. We don’t have a school in our community and we want one. And we need input into establishing it and arranging governance so we’re currently talking to two lots of experts, the Harris Federation, which runs Academies, and IES, which runs lots of the Swedish free schools. But we’ve done a lot of work on ethos. We want a school that instils a lifelong love of learning in children. At the end of the day, though, what makes a school is great teachers and a great head.”

Kate Scrase, who battled for years to help set up Elmgreen School, in south London, knows this is right. It is, she says, “the skill, determination and vision of the headteacher and staff” that have made Elmgreen successful.

And this might, in the end, be the biggest stumbling block of all to Tory school plans. Because as existing schools already know, great teachers are scarce on the ground, and great heads even scarcer. So no matter how the free school story unfolds it will always be the professionals who make it work – or not.