Without a doubt, the biggest change to the educational landscape in England over the next few years will be the growth of so-called academies and free schools, both modeled at least in part on U.S. charter schools.
Prime Minister David Cameron has said he would like every government-funded school in England to be a free school or academy by 2020. At present, they represent 60 percent of the country’s roughly 2,000 state-supported secondary schools.
The Government’s academies program was launched in the 1990s under former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Initially, they were confined to inner-city areas. Now, though, any school can seek academy status. Failing schools, however, are forced to become academies with new private sponsors and – usually – a new principal (or headteacher, as school leaders are called in the U.K.)
A mantra appears to have been adopted by Conservative politicians which — roughly summed up — translates to academies and free schools are “good” — state maintained, local authority schools are “bad.”
Freedom on Teacher Pay, Curriculum
So, what exactly are these schools? Both free schools and academies are run by private sponsors – normally faith-based groups, teacher-led cooperatives, or private companies – many of whom will already have a track record in running fee-paying private schools. They have freedom to pay whatever salaries they like (within their budget) and freedom to ignore the national curriculum for state-supported schools. They are not allowed to select students by ability and will normally take in students from a specific geographical area surrounding the schools. The only difference between free schools and academies is that free schools are new schools while academies are existing schools (run by local authorities, our equivalent of states) that have converted to academy status.
The Conservatives say academies and free schools are “good” because they have more freedom to be innovative, set their own curriculum and reward teachers they consider to be outstanding. Proponents of such schools also often argue that state-maintained, local-authority schools are too hide-bound by bureaucracy to innovate.
But the Government’s pro-academies and free schools rhetoric comes despite a report by the influential House of Commons select committee on education — which has an inbuilt majority of Conservative members of Parliament — warning that there was as yet, no evidence to suggest that academies performed any better than local authority schools. (The free school movement, it argued, was too much in its infancy to draw any conclusions.)
In addition, there has been no move to replicate the initiative in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which have their own devolved education systems. It is purely an English initiative.
From my own perspective, I can see that there have been significant improvements in some schools as a result of adopting academy status — particularly amongst those serving disadvantaged inner-city communities.
However, the massive expansion of the program has left the government short of private sponsors to take over the number of schools ministers want to become academies.
Indeed, they are providing courses to train academy sponsors who have taken over schools in how to run them – which conjures up an image of horses and stable doors and bolting to me.
On free schools, the program has shifted in emphasis, too. A number of the first few sponsors were parent-led initiatives – but it soon became evident that taking on the task of running a government-funded school alongside the commitment to a full-time job was too much. Most of the applications now come either from or are backed by sponsors who already run schools.
‘Not a Panacea’
Although free schools are seen in some respects as akin to U.S. charter schools, this approach especially draws on a model adopted in Sweden, whereby faith-based groups, community groups, parents, and teachers could receive state financial backing to set up their own schools.
Some of the free schools are remarkably innovative. They include bilingual primary schools, oases in a desert of poor language provision throughout the U.K. education system.
The trouble is the government has decreed that all new schools must be free schools. Local authorities cannot open their own schools to combat a shortage of school seats in their area.
At a time when the school population is expanding due to a rise in the birth rate and immigration, this can leave communities without enough school seats, if there are no sponsors around who want to start up a free school. As a result, existing schools are being told they must expand to meet the need and – in the case of some of the most popular schools — risk losing their popularity, sometimes gained because they have been of a manageable size.
My verdict on England’s free school and academies initiatives is this: They offer some good ideas but are not a panacea for improving the education system. If the Government is truly committed to school choice, as it professes to be, why not let local authorities throw their hats into the ring – and bid for new provision, too.
Richard Garner is the education editor for The Independent, a British newspaper published in London, and has covered education for more than three decades. He spoke at EWA’s December 2015 seminar, “Beyond the Border: Covering U.S. Education in a Global Context.”