Free Schools are heading for failure

So now it’s official: of the 323 free school proposals received by the DfE as of 11th February, 282 were turned down. Less than 50 were given an amber light. It looks likely that roughly ten will open their gates in September. The century of civil servants seconded to process applications can breathe a sigh of relief and go back to whatever it was they were doing before they were so rudely interrupted, for it’s unlikely under the strictures of the new applications process that for 2012 there will be anything like the volume of the first tranche. With the programme’s capital allocation for the first two years long since exhausted, and the government reluctant to enlist the help of SMBs and private equity backed chains, fewer of these proposals for 2012 can realistically be expected to make it through its new competitive tendering stage. While the Chancellor’s Budget Day announcement that the proposed reforms to local planning process weren’t quite dead in the water offers a glimmer of hope on the horizon, the free school initiative nevertheless seems already to have become the ‘niche programme’ that Rachel Wolf feared it might.

Much as we might wish to think otherwise, this has serious implications for the government’s wider schools reform platform: most especially in respect of its hopes of efficiency gains through school closure. The idea was that by freeing up new school supply, while at the same time rationalising existing management structures through Academy expansion, the government might also be enabled to tackle more proactively the problem of persistent under-performance, at its most acute in areas where deprivation is greatest. But without new schools coming on stream in numbers, the threat of closure rings hollow, and one of the most important mechanisms for turning around these schools doesn’t work as it should.

By any estimate, proposals for Academy expansion have received an overwhelmingly positive response, particularly among secondary school heads: a recent Association of School and College Leaders (ACSL) survey indicated that almost half of their schools had either already converted or were actively considering doing so. Gove may well succeed in bringing about a wholesale conversion right across the system. He needs to be prepared to meet the challenges presented by those schools which will as a consequence go into decline.

Academy conversion fundamentally alters the relationship between a school and its local authority (LA). It cuts all the ties and removes both from all the obligations. In consequence, on the LA side, those that retain education departments will do so only to the degree that they are able successfully to compete with other service providers in the market – be they neighbouring schools with specialist expertise, local federations, or EMOs. For their part, schools will ‘buy back’ from LAs only those services they need, and will be able to use their financial autonomy to set more effective, performance-related pay and conditions for staff, for example. With a national funding formula in development, related more directly to fluctuations in actual, in-year pupil numbers, and LA mechanisms to smooth cash flow removed, in the future schools will have to bear the consequences for educational outcomes: demand for places at successful schools will enable them to operate more efficiently than those that are merely mediocre, and perhaps even encourage some expansion; conversely a more responsive system ought to facilitate an expeditious conclusion for failing schools that are unable to buck the cycle. This is all as it should be, and if it happens it will have been a long time coming.

In respect of closures, the plan, outlined in the 2010 White Paper, is that in such circumstances in the first instance school improvement specialists like the Harris Federation will be brought in to turn things around. No one wants to see a school fail, and those that are struggling should be given opportunity to make good. But, according to the provisions of the 2011 Education Bill now in Committee, if a school fails to make the necessary improvements, the Secretary of State can step in to effect a closure on an accelerated time scale. Once the Bill passes into law, he will be able to close any school eligible for intervention, not just those deemed by Ofsted to be in need of special measures (as currently).

It’s a bold move, and one that should reap dividends if put into practice. Convincing evidence from a choice reform in Tel Aviv where unpopular schools were actually closed shows significant overall efficiency gains, indicating the potential (V. Lavy, ‘Effects of Free Choice among Public Schools’, Review of Economic Studies). If there aren’t new school groups waiting in the wings looking for premises though, then the Secretary of State and his Schools Commissioner will have to look for other solutions, forcing them back on strategies which only protract decline and delay the inevitable. Ministers can’t afford to let free school reforms lag: let’s hope they regain the courage of their free market convictions.

James Croft’s report, Profit-Making Free Schools: Unlocking the potential of England’s proprietorial schools sector, is available for free download now.