There’s No Such Thing as a Free School


Free schools are not, and cannot be, “free”. They certainly won’t be free in a financial sense. The tax payer will be paying for them. All tax payers, not just the few who currently send their kids there, or may wish to do so in the future. That includes all the taxpayers who send their kids to ‘unfree’ schools. That means all us will have a legitimate interest in how our money is spent, and will seek to exercise that interest, through various avenues.

The initial tranche of applications is put at 700 by the government – how many more will appear we have no idea. But even all of these schools will have to be approved. Please note: approved. By Government. In other words teachers and parents or whoever are not at all ‘free’ to just nip out and establish a school because they fancy it – they will have to jump through a series of government approved hoops before even being allowed to be set up.

Whilst they may be freed from some local government controls (which are precious few these days anyway) they will instead be subject to Whitehall imposed controls on how they are run. Although they may be ‘free’ from the national curriculum they will have to enter their pupils into examinations set by exam boards that still effectively work within the national curriculum framework. The will be inspected by Ofsted, and whilst they may have different criteria for ‘free’ schools, I can’t imagine results and process standards will not apply in some form. And of course there will be a host of legal, audit, and other controls.

This morning I heard some naive sole (a teacher) saying that they would be entirely free of government controls – central and local – and free to manager schools the way they wanted to. They may have more freedom than other schools, but how much remains to be seen. Just wait for the first scandal – about abuse, or financial irregularities, or poor results, or discriminatory selection, or whatever. And they will happen, sure as night follows day, because they will be run by mere mortals, not some altruistic gods come down to earth for the benefit of the rest of us. As soon as a scandal does hit, there will be the inevitable cry that ‘something must be done’ and Whitehall will implement new controls, on top of the ones they will put in place from Day One.

Many of the much derided ‘bureaucratic controls’, now so often lambasted, grew up in the first place to prevent corruption and abuse. They may have overgrown their original purpose, but they cannot be entirely set aside. Free Schools may be a bit more ‘free’, and they may swap Townhall for Whitehall, but they won’t be really ‘free’ – in any sense of the word.

There are much wider issues about the ‘Free Schools’ proposals, of course, but one thing that would be good to help us start to have a more sensible discussion would be if we stopped pretending they are going to be ‘free’. They aren’t.

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About Prof. Colin Talbot

Professor of Government (Emeritus). Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
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