Free Schools

The NASUWT Position on Free Schools

The NASUWT believes that the overriding rationale for any change to education policy should be to raise standards, tackle disadvantage and inequality and narrow the achievement gap. Any changes should also safeguard and enhance the values and ethos of state education. Nothing in the Coalition Government’s academies and free schools programme meets those principles.

There is strong evidence from the UK, the USA, Sweden and elsewhere that bringing other providers in to run schools creates additional financial pressures across the whole system, increases inefficiency (especially as a result of the potential increase in numbers of surplus places) and leads to profiteering.

There is no requirement on proposers of free schools to conduct a public consultation when there is an intention to establish a free school. This exemplifies a significant democratic deficit in the Coalition Government’s academy and free school provisions. Local communities, local authorities and parents, are therefore, disenfranchised and their involvement is subject to the ‘grace and favour’ of the proposer.

The promotion of social cohesion is at the heart of public service provision. Free schools are not premised on the basis of making a meaningful contribution to the promotion of social cohesion. They are deliberately established to stand in isolation from the local authority family of schools. There is the real potential for them to lead to parents seeking segregated schools, as has happened abroad. The question, which has not been answered by the Coalition Government, is what happens when the parents who set up the free school lose interest? This is likely to happen when their children leave the school.

The idea that in the 21st century disused office blocks or derelict buildings are fit for purpose to provide the facilities children and young people need to learn should cause deep concern, particularly when planning and other regulations are to be amended or removed to facilitate this.

Planning laws are designed to ensure that the site of a building is fit for purpose in terms of its location, accessibility and safety. These laws give rights to local residents in terms of their input into the proposed location. Many disused or derelict buildings are in that position because they were not deemed fit for purpose by the previous owners. In many cases this was because the buildings required extensive expenditure to strip out inappropriate and dangerous material such as asbestos or because adaption for access for people with disabilities was not feasible or cost effective.

Terms and conditions of teachers and other staff in free schools are likely to be less favourable because the school is established from scratch and will set its own contracts. There will be no existing staff on the national pay and conditions of service framework or, with regard to support staff, on local government terms and conditions.

The national pay and conditions framework is a fundamental part of the universal entitlement for children and young people in the state system to have teachers paid in a way that recognises and rewards them as highly skilled professionals and who have access to working conditions that enable them to work effectively, focusing on their core responsibilities of teaching and learning, to deliver the highest standards of education. Existing teachers who apply to work in a free school will not be protected under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE) and will be required to accept the contract set by the proposer.

Economically, the creation of free schools and indeed academies is a flawed strategy. The Coalition Government is focusing on public service expenditure to seek, it claims, to address the deficit and yet academies and free schools will be more costly to the taxpayer as the administrative, financial and specialist central services currently provided by the local authority will need to be replicated by each new academy and free school to ensure effective service delivery.

Free schools can only be supported financially on the basis of taking money from the funding currently earmarked for other schools and through slashing programmes like Building Schools for the Future (BSF) which was designed to refurbish or replace existing dilapidated school buildings.

Free schools set up to avoid school closures or amalgamations by local authorities to tackle falling rolls and surplus places will place enormous additional cost on the local authority and all other schools. Free schools will make it impossible for local authorities to plan provision strategically. The reality is that the over-supply of school places, which is likely to arise as a result of the establishment of free schools, could force the closure of, or job loss in, other neighbouring schools.

Claims that free schools and academies provide more financial freedom from local authorities and ensure that all the money allocated for pupils reaches the pupils is grossly misleading. All schools already have autonomy over their spending, regardless of whether they are community, foundation or academy schools.

Well over 90% of the funding allocated for schools goes directly to them. It is not held by the local authority. Most local authorities retain centrally 5% or less. A small number have 8% or 9%. This funding is retained by the local authority to provide essential services, including specialist support for all schools in an area, particularly with regard to special educational needs (SEN) provision.

The NASUWT believes that all state-funded schools should be directly linked to local authorities to enable effective local planning for the provision of high quality comprehensive educational services, to secure the economies of scale to be realised in procurement and to monitor standards of provision.

Free schools are premised on the notion of complete autonomy for schools. The level of autonomy that already exists in some schools in the UK is already a cause for concern and has led for example to the failure to comply with statutory provisions and stockpiling of public money in school balances.

Machin and Vernoit, from London School of Economics (LSE), have stated that they are seriously concerned that the proposed extension of the academies and free schools programme ‘will exacerbate already existing educational inequalities; thus strongly suggesting that although the Government may indicate that they are introducing this programme to reduce disadvantage, the reality is that it is wholly an ideological move.

Free schools and academies are the clearest example of the intention of the Coalition Government to turn state education into a free market free-for-all and to provide opportunities for the private sector to make a profit out of state-funded schools.

For more information from the NASUWT about Free Schools, click here: