Free schools are still, despite their relative presence on the educational scene, often either misunderstood or entirely new phenomena for many of us. When the free school initiative was first launched by the government in 2010, it was met with marked controversy and several question marks as to the viability of such a project. For those of you not yet versed in the concept of a free school, the idea is that free schools receive their original funding from the Department for Education (DfE) in what is known as a ‘free school competition’, an application round by the DfE which calls on individuals and trusts to propose new schools for opening, generally two years in advance. Although they receive initial funding from the DfE, the charitable trusts are also responsible for the continuation of income, and free schools are (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the nomenclature) free to establish and maintain their own choice of curriculum. The extent to which this is done in practice, however, varies significantly and is a source of divided opinion. Nonetheless, this manoeuvrability in choice of curriculum is an obvious advantage where a school is specialised in, say, education for autistic children, or offers very specific teaching content tailored to a very specific learner profile. With this freedom to steer their own curriculum, CEOs and Headteachers of schools and Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) have demonstrated widely varying approaches to ethos, visions and behavioural cultures. One particularly interesting case is that of Katharine Birbalsingh, founding headmistress of Michaela Community School (MCS) in North West London.
Michaela Community School epitomises the free school concept. In this case, the overwhelming philosophy underpinning the school is a belief that behavioural discipline is the key driver of educational success. During my time working at an education consultancy I was fortunate enough to attend conferences at Policy Exchange, one of which included Ms Birbalsingh speaking on the future of education and our expectations of the future prime minister (at this time Boris was far from being the inevitable PM…). The pride of Ms Birbalsingh surrounding her free school model is perhaps warranted, given that the school recently received some of the best GCSE results nationally; a sweet taste of ‘I proved you wrong’ must have been present given the fact that Ms Birbalsingh was once ‘fired’ from the state sector for taking a far too disciplinarian approach to education…
However, Ms Birbalsingh is far from a Victorian endorser of the cane and daily detentions, but instead a champion of mutual respect, confidence and courtesy. This is most obvious in the classrooms and hallways of MCS, where pupils are more or less silent and rarely ever talk over others or the teacher. For Katharine, the proof of this model is in the delicious pudding of outstanding GCSE results. Nonetheless, one can still question the validity of an overwhelmingly disciplinarian curriculum model focusing unerringly on academic achievement. Of particular note is the way in which MCS attempts to marry the goals of ‘allowing children to be children’, on the one hand, with the discipline-based teaching method that permeates the classrooms, on the other. These are potentially disparate goals.
Other free schools in Britain favour a much more holistic approach to teaching and progress, where great emphasis is placed on the personal development, character and wellbeing of the student, as opposed to pure academic and behavioural discipline. The contrast in approaches between free schools are as much political as they are pedagogical. Indeed, this is presumably why free schools attract such divided opinion. The split in perceptions over what children need and what sort of educational environment enables them to thrive is most noticeable among free school MATs. For many, the level of choice and plurality is precisely the sort of benefit that the free school initiative is designed for; after all, parents can choose from a wide menu of free school options according to their specific child’s needs and characteristics, opting for a school that matches the type of young adult they wish their child to become. The obvious question marks here are 1.) is it justifiable that a parent should opt to tailor their child’s educational setting at an early age? and 2.) how can a parent be sure that the free school setting will indeed help their child to thrive? This is, among other reasons, why the application process is as rigorous and selective as it is. The DfE demands that proposers author 100+ pages of detailed application sections before they are invited to interview. This ensures that every approved free school has gone through a layered and highly scrutinised process of review and assessment. Nonetheless, the free school concept is still in its relative infancy, and a rigorous application process does not guarantee infallibility…
Whether or not the free school structure is to be revered or feared is a question of both personal and political orientation. After all, the concept is inherently political. The original impetus behind the project was that trusts and headteachers would be able to drive up local and national standards by the government introducing competition into the state school process. The primary critique of this is from those who oppose the idea of competition in state services. Indeed, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) said: “The government should hang its head in shame at this monumental waste of taxpayers’ money at a time when schools are severely underfunded“. Tied to this is the topic of faith schools and the fact that many free school proposers have been based on faith – the religiosity of schools has long been a source of division and the free school model arguably fuels this. However, to allow these critiques to colour the entire debate would be wrong. For example, Policy Exchange conducted a study which demonstrated that the results in low-performing schools located in the vicinity of a free school outperform similar schools that do not have a nearby free school; this is particularly important for lower socioeconomic areas in the UK, known as ‘blue spots.’ It is worth considering that the current low standards in these geographies are very strong candidates for innovative educational initiatives that focus on ameliorating pupil attainment.
Overall, free schools offer an interesting model that continues to be the source of debate in the UK. The current Conservative government are committed to continuing and increasing funding for new schools (if we can ever get past Brexit…). Commentators such as Toby Young, former Director of New Schools Network, are confident in the demonstrable success of free schools and there is much support for their continued presence and development. Question marks over allowing schools to depart so widely from the national curriculum will most likely continue, however, the extent to which free schools do diverge from the national curriculum is in reality much less than many of their critiques fear. During my time working as an education consultant the free school project struck me as something we should be both heavily debating, and continuing to explore. The idea of choice and innovation in education can scarcely be a negative thing in and of itself. Moreover, the majority of free school proposers with whom I worked were targeting significantly deprived areas of Britain in need of urgent and significant improvement and renovation. It is this aim in which free schools can most hope to succeed – they can be a wellspring of academic excellence, pupil development and curriculum innovation, so long as their approach on the ground continues to be monitored, assessed and regularly scrutinised.
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