Tuesday, April 23, 2024
HomeNewsMark Ellse: Without commercial disciplines, free schools are an expensive experiment

Mark Ellse: Without commercial disciplines, free schools are an expensive experiment


‘The only long term solution is more good school places and that is where free schools really are helping,’ said David Cameron, as he announced on Monday a further 49 free schools for next year.

For as long as I’ve been teaching, whichever party has been in power, ministers for education have claimed that their policies are improving schools. But Cameron’s claim, that ‘One million more are in schools that inspectors say are good or outstanding,’ is more like Mao Tse Tung’s statistics of steel production than anything in the world in which the rest of us teach. After all, however right Gove may have been about his policies, can one ever imagine Ofsted daring to say anything other than things are getting better?

Free schools may have a part to play in educational improvement but, as one who started teaching in the state system and who has a wife who still does, I’ve not seen much evidence that the teachers in state schools do any worse a job than those in independent schools. Politically-motivated lefties some of them may be (pace my wife) but that doesn’t stop them being good teachers.

Some independent schools become free schools because they are in financial difficulties. The Royal School in Wolverhampton has burned its way through nearly £3 million over the last six years and, despite massive job cuts, failed to balance the books. Governors and teachers will breathe easily now that the metamorphosis to free school has been approved and the plenteous public purse will secure employment. So too will nearby independent schools who, in a tough market, have lost a competitor with no embarrassment of a school closing. (So bad for trade…)

The Royal will, of course, be a success. The hint that it was aiming for free school status caused every ambitious and well-motivated parent who had enough money for a year’s school fees to pile children into the school, gambling that the State would pick up the tab in future. And, filled with the children of those sorts of parents, academic success for years is assured.

I am not sure that any aspect of the wisdom of Michael Gove, or a management that has failed to balance the books, can be credited.

The problem with a current account deficit, when people like governors are spending others’ money, is that they are so reluctant to cut expenditure. It causes such a fuss! Much easier to let the debt drift up and leave it to the next administration to pick up the pieces….

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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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