“Ignorant about free schools” – Letter to local press

A letter of mine was published in the Brentwood Gazette in reaction to a “Soapbox” feature the previous week. In it, five local Councillors, representing different parties, gave their views on whether a free school proposal in neighbouring Ongar should move forward. Three of those Councillors stated, with absolutely no evidence to back it up, that “competition” and “choice” always led to positive outcomes in education.

LibDem Councillor David Kendell, betraying his lack of knowledge of the education system and with no regard for the quality of our existing schools wrote: “I would hope this competition would lead to Brentwood schools trying to raise the bar even higher in terms of academic achievement.”

The worst offender however was the Conservative Leader of Brentwood Council, Louise McKinlay, who actually used the phrase, “competition can only be a good thing” in her response. She also said:

“Increased choice not only allows parents more of a say in where they educate their children, but also gives them the opportunity to run a school.

“This is incredibly empowering and the involvement of parents should be welcomed.”

She went on:

“Along with an increased choice, the greater opportunities can also help to drive up standards in other schools and competition can only encourage them to become outstanding.

This has an added benefit of providing better education for other young people as well, not just those attending the free school”.

Mrs McKinlay presents absolutely no evidence to back any of this up and lacks any knowledge of how education is funded or the consequences of spreading a finite amount of resource amongst a growing number of schools.

So rather than wait three weeks for my next Gazette column to challenge this nonsense I wrote a letter. It was duly published this week:Paper letter

“Sir,

I was saddened to read the ill informed comments of some of our local councillors regarding education policy in your recent Soapbox section. I expect our representatives to take some time to canvass the views of those who run, teach and use our local schools before expressing an opinion, it is quite clear that some, particularly those of the coalition parties, have failed to do so.

I am not an education professional but, in order to ensure my monthly column for this newspaper is informed by evidence rather than propaganda, I speak very regularly to local teachers, governors and parents and read the education press daily. Had they done so we may not have received the misinformation and inaccurate assessment of how schools work that we were presented with.

I will focus on the worst examples:

Competition does not drive school improvement or provide “choice”. There is little or no evidence of this, in fact collaboration and sharing of best practice was the acknowledged driver of the most successful improvement project of recent years, the London Challenge. Competition dissuades schools from engaging in this to the benefit of the few not the many.

Your correspondents also clearly do not understand how schools are funded. Pupil numbers dictate how much money a school receives on a per head basis. It therefore follows that if you open more schools that revenue is stretched across a greater number of them.

I fail to understand how depriving existing schools of revenue helps them to improve. I also object to Louise McKinley’s statement that competition “encourages” other schools “to be outstanding”. As if that is not what all schools are concerned with anyway, to suggest otherwise is an insult to the teachers and governors in our current schools.

What actually happens is that you restrict student choice as schools are forced to shrink their curriculums to fit their funding. What we risk is creating a system where we have a large number of small schools offering the same options and that will struggle to provide viable sixth forms.

Finally, opening new schools does not “empower parents” and the numbers of schools being “open and run” by parents is tiny. Private companies run over 95% of schools opened since 2010. The fact that the first to be openly run for profit, IES Breckland, has admitted to providing an “inadequate” education for its students less than two years after opening is not a great advert for improvement through competition.

If Mrs McKinley was really concerned with parent empowerment she would encourage greater levels of parent governorship and oppose her government’s lowering of the statutory requirement to two.

But that doesn’t make such a good headline.”

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