Saturday 24 September 2011

Free Schools = Freedom to privatise education

Earlier this month, the first 24 of the Coalition’s new ‘free schools’ opened. Michael Gove claims that they will end a ‘state monopoly’ in education and give ‘freedom’ to parents to set up schools that meet the needs of their children. But what kind of ‘freedom’ is really on offer from this Government of cuts and privatisation?

What are free schools?
Free schools are a new kind of Academy school. Like Academies, they receive state-funding directly from Westminster but are independent of an elected Local Authority. Instead, they will be run by unaccountable sponsors, predominantly big businesses.

Rather than being converted from existing schools, free schools will typically rely on available accommodation such as empty office blocks. As a result, in Sweden, where free schools were first tested out, many lacked facilities such as libraries and play space.

Government legislation presumes that where new schools are opened, they will be free schools, not Local Authority community schools. This is a real threat in areas like London where there is a growing shortage of pupil places.

Freedom to make profits out of tax-payers’ money
We know that when Tories talk about ‘freedom,’ they really mean freedom for big business to make profits at our expense. Free schools will be no different. 

Five of the 24 initial free schools will be run by existing Academy chains from the start. As Sweden has also shown, eventually most free schools will end up being taken over by these big edu-businesses. 

Academies have not been allowed to be run for a profit but free schools will be different. Under pressure, Gove has stated that free schools are not going to be able to make profit – but only ‘at the moment’. But, as in health and other public services, that won’t be good enough for the private sector vultures. 

Freedom to cut costs and quality
The privateers plan to cut costs by attacking pay and conditions and employing cheaper staff. That’s why free school legislation means they won’t have to employ qualified teachers. Nor, like all Academies, will they have to abide by national terms and conditions. 

Claims that free schools will offer ‘smaller class sizes’ are inevitably an illusion. Swedish free schools have worse pupil teacher ratios than municipal schools. They also employ a far lower proportion of qualified teaching staff.

Even if the Government throws some additional bribes at Free Schools and Academies in the first-place, that money is at the expense of other schools as the Con-Dems cut overall expenditure. The £130 million start-up costs for the first free schools have been found by the money saved by cutting the Building Schools for the Future funds that were desperately needed to rebuild underfunded Local Authority schools. 

Freedom from democratic control
Free schools are part and parcel of the Government’s agenda to cut and privatise public services. They hope to remove so many schools and services from local council control that Local Authorities effectively cease to exist.

When all the main parties in our Town Halls are voting for cuts, some parents may ask why we should bother to defend elected Councils. However, local councillors are still accountable to voters, even if most try to ignore our wishes between elections. Councils are also able to plan for provision for all pupils across a local area. 

Free schools and Academies will create a chaotic ‘free-for-all’ where unaccountable businesses put their interests first. Vital Local Authority support services will be lost. The Academy and Free School education ‘marketplace’ may create a few lucky winners – but most families will lose out.

Freedom over how schools are run?
Parents and teachers are rightly angry at the way both Labour and Con-Dem Governments have used tests and league tables to put schools into an educational strait-jacket. But free schools are no solution.

Some are offering extended opening hours, an attractive option for parents working long hours and unable to afford childcare. But many community schools also try to offer breakfast clubs and after-school activities. But free schools want to do it on the cheap by making teachers work longer hours instead of paying for additional staff to run the extended provision.

Parents, staff and students should have more say in how schools are run. But ‘free schools’ will hand real control to big business sponsors, not local parents.  Where free schools are offering curriculum changes, these are mainly designed to help them attract a more privileged clientele – for example Latin classes.

Freedom to select
Despite underfunding and all the pressures on families and young people, most schools are successfully supporting their students. But the Tories and the right-wing press are deliberately trying to undermine comprehensive schools, whipping up parents’ fears to get their support for free schools as a ‘safe haven’ for their children. 

Gove has even tried to steal the NUT’s own slogan by claiming that free schools are about offering every parent ‘a good local school’ for their child. In reality, his policy will achieve the opposite, widening division between schools. Their ‘business plan’ aims to enrol middle-class pupils that can secure the highest exam results at the lowest costs. Local Authority schools will be left to support the youth with the greatest needs. 

Analysis for the Guardian confirms that the first wave of free schools have predominantly middle-class catchment areas, even those sited in poorer authorities. The dangers of segregation are increased by the numbers of faith groups that have already - or are proposing to - set up free schools. Again, Sweden’s experience shows that free schools have led to a widening class divide between schools. Instead of ‘freedom, they promise more inequality.

Some facts on Sweden’s school reforms:

•        The proportion of teachers with a teaching degree in Sweden has decreased by approximately nine per cent since the early 1990s when Free Schools were introduced – from 94 per cent in 1991 to fewer than 85 per cent in 2007/08.
•          In Sweden the number of qualified teachers in Free Schools (64 per cent) is lower than in municipal (state) schools (85 per cent).
•          In addition, the pupil teacher ratio in Swedish Free Schools is worse than in municipal (state) schools - almost 8.5 teachers per hundred pupils in municipal schools; just over 7.5 teachers per hundred pupils in Free Schools.
•          Most Free Schools lease building such as disused factories, factories and offices rather than using dedicated schools sites. This means many Free Schools lack facilities for sports, playgrounds, lunch halls and libraries. Whereas every public school in Sweden is obliged to have a library, Free Schools are not.
•          In Sweden, 75% of Free Schools are run by private, profit-making companies. Swedish teachers’ union, Laraforbundet, believes that company profits come from:
-           The companies renting their school buildings and so not being responsible for long term wear and tear;
-           Buildings such as disused offices and factories being utilised;
-           Lack of overheads on e.g. sports facilities, dining halls etc.
-           A lack of investment in special needs/language facilities and support; and
-           The employment of young and inexperienced staff and larger numbers of unqualified teachers.

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