Last week wasn’t a very good one for Free Schools that are effectively independent schools funded from general taxation. Firstly, there was the closure of the Discovery School in Crawley after an Osfted Inspection, then there was the National Audit Office Report that gave the whole Free School project something of a mixed blessing and led me to ask why, when governments local and national are busy cutting services because of a lack of funding, some Free Schools have been allowed to open in areas where there is no shortage of places for pupils at present. Finally, in a largely un-noticed Table in the Statistical Bulletin on Phonics testing published last week by the DfE it appeared that the 423 pupils tested in the 15 Free Schools did less well than pupils in any other type of school except for pupils in sponsored mainstream academies. The latter are probably in many cases schools in special measures that have been forced to become an academy with a sponsor. Interestingly, there was no difference in outcomes between pupils educated in infant and primary schools, with in both types of school 85% of pupils meeting the standard by the end of Year 2 compared with 82% in the Free Schools.
The Free School movement is entirely the opposite of the Gladstonian approach to State Education espoused by the Liberals in the Nineteenth Century. To Gladstone, the State was the default position and as a result if you wanted a different type of education, you had to pay for it. The only exception was that the revenue costs of existing schools that joined the state system were paid, but apart from on religious matters they then followed what the state demanded. To modern day Conservatives, including the Centre for Market Reform of Education and the Adam Smith Institute that jointly published a paper last week entitled School Vouchers: for greater equality and quality in English education it appears that the State should pay for any type of education parents want. As I have mentioned in a previous post, this is economic madness when the State is trying to cut back on expenditure. Those with even a limited knowledge of the history of education only have to consider the financial consequences if those former Direct Grant schools that left the state system in the 1970s over comprehensive schooling all applied to return to the state sector and ceased being private fee-paying schools.
There is a real debate to be had here about what the State should provide by way of education, and whether it should be encouraging more parents to move away from a private sector that is also busy becoming a significant export industry in its own right. If technology is about to play an important part in re-defining schooling, as some now claim, it may be worth considering both the purpose of schooling, and the role that the modern state should play in delivering a service. After nearly 150 years of one model, it might be time for a change. Whether that reform means extending the offer of free schooling to more pupils or restricting it to only those that cannot pay is an interesting issue we might need to debate as a society.