Looking forward in anger.
You’re the Secretary of State for Education and you have around 25,000 schools for which you are ultimately responsible and you have been given your budget allocation for the coming period. Do you, ensure that the throughput of training teachers is sufficient to supply the needs of the schools, ensure that basic funding allows resources to be bought or necessary repairs and replacement buildings are available? No, you decide to open a series of new Free Schools.
If a headteacher, in allocating the available budget, did not first consider staffing availability, needs and costs, then the resource needs, building fabric, space, replacement then potential upgrades, their judgement would be called into account and leadership and management judgements at inspection would be poor.
I’m trying to think why I have such a problem with the announcement today that Free Schools are to be expanded. Might be useful to put some of the issues in a list.
- Free schools are set up by local interest groups; there is no guarantee that educational expertise is present, so decisions can be flawed.
- Free Schools, if set up by Trusts, may still suffer the same issues.
- Premises need to be found; cost and potentially not suitable for purpose.
- Management posts need to be filled, Head, Deputy and Admin needs to be in place, as well as finding a brand new team of staff with appropriate skills to develop a wide range of schemes of work.
- Starting from scratch, all resources need to be bought and made available, with potential training needs. Cost and suitability? Mistakes will be made.
- No policies will be in place. School “sold” on aspiration.
- Effective team building takes time.
- Processes may not be in place, so things can be made up as they go along, with ensuing hiccups.
- Inspection monitoring visits are not made public, so parents are unaware about the quality of the provision.
In many ways, it is the secretive nature of the local development of a Free School that worries me most. Parents are told what they need to be told, with the initial stages being akin to a sales job, just like any other, with colourful prospectus, sales-people approach to face to face contact and in the press. The Department for Education may visit regularly, to monitor and advise I assume, akin to an Ofsted Inspection, but the outcomes are not made public. So what happens when a Free School goes wrong and some do, as have been recently evidenced?
If 500 new Free Schools are proposed over the next five years, that will be at significant extra cost to the system, not least because 500 extra headteachers, deputies and admin departments will be needed to coordinate the systems, beyond the additional teachers and buildings, which would be needed anyway.
Some will be in inappropriate buildings, with limited facilities, which then require extensive remodelling, at a cost. Some of these buildings may be on lease, so the long term future of the school might be at risk.
It strikes me that the wrong analysis has led to the wrong description of the problem, which in turn has created a wrong plan and execution.
Within this, there are real children, whose chances of a quality education might be being compromised to political whim.
There are also real schools, with real heads and staff, with appropriate facilities, which, with a small amount of building, even temporary, and some new staff, could have a significant impact on the need for school spaces.
That, to me, is the simpler solution, and, if we need an aspiration, perhaps to ensure that all schools are good schools, with appropriate staffing and provision? I thought the Government was responsible for that, first and foremost?
PS. I have avoided anecdote, but have recently had a grandchild in a Free School. The experience was not entirely positive.