Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has promised a new wave of free schools if the Conservatives win next year’s general election. Currently, there are 174 such schools, with another 157 on the way. Free schools are simply academies that are set up from scratch by interested groups such as parents, teachers, businesses and charities, rather than being conversions of existing schools.
To a large extent they operate independently of local authority control and are accountable directly to the Department for Education. This gives the schools a lot of advantages, including the freedom to determine their own curriculum. Liberated from the dead hand of local authority interference and bureaucracy, free schools and academies should flourish, and many do.
However, if Mr Gove wishes to encourage more of these schools he needs to help resolve some of the issues confronting them. Governance is a central problem. I have yet to come across a media report that understands how it functions in relation to free schools/academies. Even Ofsted appears to struggle.
As chairman of governors of an academy I attended a debriefing following a two-day Ofsted monitoring visit. When the inspector spoke about ‘governance’, I asked him to tell me who governed the school. He responded, free of sarcasm, by asking me to tell him. Remarkable, indeed, since he had spent two days at the academy and was reporting back.
Most commentators assume that academies/free schools are run by governing bodies, in the traditional sense. In fact, private charitable companies, limited by guarantee, run them. The directors of the company are the charity trustees. If the directors wish to, they can appoint a local governing body. Most, if not all, have chosen to do so. However, this governing body does not have any independent authority. The directors of the company may delegate powers to it but these can be withdrawn at any time.
I am not sure that many so-called governing bodies realise that they have responsibility but no real power. However, in the eyes of parents and pupils the governors ‘carry the can’. This is an unenviable position and one that will alarm many governors if they ever find out where they stand.
A further issue for academies/free schools is the burden and cost of bureaucracy. Each school has to manage a whole series of administrative tasks covering such matters as repairs and building work, staff contracts and conditions of employment, pupil meals, transport, training and so on.
These are tasks that are more easily done by a central body operating on behalf of a group of schools. As with local authorities, large academy chains benefit from being able to negotiate discounts with suppliers and they run efficiently staffed administrative centres.
For free schools/academies operating on their own, or as part of a small group, things are much more difficult and more expensive. Should a non-teaching administrator of a primary school academy be paid more than the Prime Minister and a lot more than the Education Secretary? Or should the money be going to the children?
If Mr Gove wishes to make a real success of his free school programme, he is going to have to provide an affordable system of administration. He is also going to have to come clean on the powers of so-called governing bodies.