What do I think about: ‘Free Schools’ in Suffolk

When campaigning in the west part of South Suffolk (Sudbury and the villages to the south and north of it), I found that many people, without prompting, expressed their concerns about the local Schools Review.  The review means that the current 3-tier system (primary, middle and high schools) will change to a 2-tier one, phasing out middle schools.

This change was instigated by the Conservative-led county council, and was first introduced in a consultation back in 2007.  I was a school governor at a primary school in Great Cornard at the time, and it struck me – and many others – that the consultation was designed to demonstrate the basis for the council’s (already made) decision, not in fact  to ask  for people’s views to help come to a conclusion.  More of an opinion poll than a consultation.

The council argued that better exam results in 2-tier systems made the case for changing from three tiers.  To my mind they failed to explore other ways of addressing this apparent inequality or to account properly in their calculations for the different demographics across the county versus the systems in place.

I don’t really want to focus on the merits of 2-tier rather than 3-tier systems here, or indeed on the county’s current plans  for the actual re-organisation.  However a significant consequence of the reorganisation is that parent groups have sprung up  in both Clare and Stoke-by-Nayland to campaign against the proposed closure of the middle schools in these locations.

These campaigns were given a new momentum and focus by the Tory proposals to introduce ‘Free schools’, much vaunted in the election campaign and now included in the Queen’s Speech, and the groups are now campaigning to set up 11-16 High schools as ‘Free Schools’ in both Clare and Stoke by Nayland.

The  concerns and activities of these parent groups have energised many others, including local businesses and former pupils.  As a parent of children set to go to one of these middle schools myself, I entirely understand both the wish for children to attend schools which are as local as possible, and the sadness about  losing popular and effective local middle schools.  I also cannot fault the determination of these parents to champion their children’s education.  However I profoundly disagree that the re-establishment of  these schools as ‘Free’ high schools is the answer.

As I understand it, the points in favour of establishing high schools in these locations are:

  • they would be small
  • they would be local
  • they promote choice
  • they would set their own curriculum
  • they would capitalise on the energy of the parents involved
  • they would draw on other community resources (independent schools, businesses) and be somehow appreciably ‘different’ from other state schools

As I indicated during the campaign, I disagree, and here’s why, taking each of these points in turn and then adding a couple more :

Small: is this inherently good? Is big bad?  I think as parents we all want to feel that our children are known in their school, and so very big schools seem impersonal, and rather scary.  Personally, I’d be uncomfortable with a school of 2000.  However, it doesn’t follow that schools of 500 are intrinsically good unless they are  good schools for all the other reasons that make schools good. (To my mind the factors that make the most of teachers’ skills and therefore enable the best learning by pupils  include clear leadership, high expectations, effective pastoral care and engagement by parents).

The most important thing to note about small schools, is that in the state system (i.e. without ‘pupil premium’ paid for by parents), smaller schools are VERY unlikely to have sufficient income to have enough teachers to provide a wide range of subjects and activities, within and outside of the curriculum.  There are very definitely economies of scale. Added to which, a school of around 1500 can easily have extremely good pastoral care and therefore knowledge of individual pupils if it is organised in a way which promotes this (houses within schools, for example).

Local: Yes –  I like the idea of children travelling as short a distance as possible to school, for pastoral and environmental reasons and so that as parents we can be part of the community surrounding the school.  But in a rural area, local is only going to be local to a very small group of people.

Choice: Yes, I can see that a wider range of schools promotes choice and that can be a good thing.  But only if all the schools have a fair chance to succeed, and this cannot happen if funding is squeezed (see ‘disadvantages’ below). Furthermore, I have visited all the high schools in South Suffolk during the campaign, and found each one not only to be good but to be discernibly different, not just because they have different specialisms but also because all schools have their own character and identity.  We already have choice, but it should also be remembered that choice is only available to those who have the capacity to exercise it.  Therefore, what we must promote first and foremost is excellence in all our catchment schools.

Curriculum: After much focus on the fact that the curriculum had become too focused on academic studies and left out vocational ones, we now have a curriculum for 14-16s which is broad enough to provide for a range of interests, abilities and different career paths.  Even without consideration for vocational courses, smaller schools simply will not have enough revenue funding to provide for a wide enough range of individual subjects taught by specialists.  For example, three separate science subjects may not be possible.  That limits pupil choice, both at GCSE and beyond.

Parental energy: The commitment and energy of the parents seeking to set up free schools locally is extraordinary. However, what happens when this cohort of children have left the schools and their parents move on to other things? Will parents of new pupils be required to help? And what will happen if they do not have the skills?

It is already possible to be very involved in schools, as governors, as mentors, as volunteers.  I’m sure the other schools in this area would love to harness the energy and commitment of all parents – it’s not necessary to start a new school to be involved in our children’s education.

Drawing on community resources: This is always a good thing, and it is vital that every school be viewed as part of the fabric of the community, gaining from the community and giving back to it.  Sometimes this can be in very obvious ways, and one of the things that impressed me in visiting Suffolk high or upper schools was the use of sports facilities by the community. However, like parental involvement, we don’t need new schools to be established in order to welcome involvement from organisations and businesses in our communities, we can do this now.

There are also a couple of other very big disadvantages to the setting up of free schools:

Money: Unless there is in fact demand for places that are not already provided for by existing schools, the establishment of new ‘free schools’ would take pupils, and therefore funding, away from existing provision.  This would disadvantage those schools and is simply not tolerable.  Because of the Schools Organisation Review, there is a perception that this will not happen in Suffolk.  However, if a school has a defined catchment now and another school is set up within that catchment, the existing school will lose pupils even though the changes made bringing in the 2-tier system increase the number of year-groups taught.  The numbers of pupils gained do not make up for those lost to the new school.

Arguments put forward so far have seemed to me to focus on capital costs only, and of course these are a concern. However, revenue funding is what secures the school’s capacity to help pupils learn, and two competing schools in one catchment means less revenue funding for each school. Revenue funding includes paying for teachers, teaching assistants, pastoral care, heating bills and maintaining sports facilities.  And that’s before other issues are considered, such as whether the county council will provide free bus transport for both existing schools and new free schools in an area.

Standards: Where are the guarantees with Free schools that the quality of education sought will actually be provided?  And what would happen to a Free school, and to the pupils in that school, if it failed to deliver?

Perceptions of the existing schools: Schools, as with all public institutions, can lose ‘stakeholder’ trust and gain negative reputations faster than they can gain positive ones.  Negativity is self-perpetuating.  The act of  promoting new schools as those that will meet parental expectations suggests (inadvertently or otherwise) that existing schools fail to do this.  Recovery from this position is hard for the schools, for the pupils at those schools, and for the community in which those schools are based.

To sum up

Whilst the suggestion to establish new schools can be made quickly, and sounds on the face of it a fantastic opportunity, it would take a very long time to undo the damage caused by setting them up.  The idea is a bad one unless there is either additional funding around or increased demand for places; neither of these applies in South Suffolk, and I hope this post will help outline the reasons why I believe this.

Our children don’t (or only rarely do) choose their schools, parents do.  And despite the best of intentions, parents may in fact limit the choices available to all children in the area by setting up schools which disadvantage other schools and their pupils, all without giving any guarantee that the new schools will in fact offer what they would want.

Establishing new ‘free schools’ would disadvantage other schools and therefore other children.  Our children’s futures cannot be secured in isolation from the system which our community needs to be built on.  If the energy of the parents wanting closer involvement in their children’s schools could be harnessed in other ways, all our children would benefit.

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