Socialist Worker

The heavy price of Gove's free schools

by Nick Grant, NUT executive (pc)
Issue No. 2206

The ConDem government’s desire to extend Labour’s Academy school scheme to cover all existing primary, secondary and special schools comes with a twist.

New “providers”, such as parent or community groups, are simultaneously being invited to come forward to accept public funds to establish so-called free schools.

They will compete with existing schools for government funding and students. Free schools will upset the delicate ecology of admissions across a local authority area.

The kind of schools that education secretary Michael Gove has in mind are not like the famous Summerhill boarding school in Suffolk, founded by AS Neil with radically democratic practices and academic freedom.

Gove and his ilk have the opposite in mind—a sentimental view of teaching based on their own private and grammar schools, which is based more on preaching than teaching.

What Gove offers to new providers is freedom from the national curriculum and national pay and conditions for staff, plus freedom from the local authority.

Thus taxpayers’ money will be handed over from Whitehall to self-selecting groups to manage privately. Nobody knows how Gove will choose between competing bids from the same locality.

Bidders will rent or purchase a suitable site—not easily done in many areas—then hire a private contractor of educational services such as Edison or GEMS Education to do the teaching.

Gove has shamelessly confirmed that he has no objection to profiteering in education.

Like all capitalist companies these private providers want to make profits, and they do so by shrinking each school’s pay bill. This means employing many fewer qualified teachers and using much more ICT-based and assistant-supervised rote learning.

The new provider will also need to buy in specialist services. Human resource managers, lawyers, architects, builders, payroll and accountants will charge handsomely and divert even more money away from teaching.

This is precisely how the Swedish school system that the Tories admire has evolved. These schools have also developed socially segregated admissions policies.

In October 2009 the Tories set up the New Schools Network (NSN) to import such quack ideas with 24 year old Rachel Wolf as its director. Her policy priority is to institute competitive school provision in every area.

“A mixed school economy will allow new energy to explode into our system and force existing schools to up their game,” she told the Independent newspaper. “All the evidence from the US is that the independent charter schools make state schools better.”

But the most authoritative study from Stanford University tells the opposite tale.

NSN claims to have drummed up a number of takers. Of two prominent campaigns one is in west London and the other in west Yorkshire.

Toby Young is leading the campaign to set up a West London free school. He claims that his 500-strong group of supporters want a “comprehensive grammar school” in their W3 postcode.


Young told me recently that he wants schools to move away from “child-centred” teaching to “subject-centred” teaching. This is utter nonsense to any educational professional, student or parent. Who does Young think his old school curriculum should be taught to? Monkeys?

Young has already had talks with executives from GEMS, whose global reach he claims will guarantee financial stability, to do the ‘head-fixing’.

Things certainly are more black and white in Kirklees than Acton.

The Birkenshaw, Birstall and Gomersal Parent Alliance (BBGPA) already has SERCO lined up to run a 900-place 11-16 secondary school.

They approached ex-secretary of state Ed Balls for consent to run this on the site of Birkenshaw Middle School.

He fudged a direct response by commissioning an experts’ report into this proposal last March.

Its authors found that the proposals “Would have a negative impact on other schools in the area in the form of surplus places and an adverse effect on revenue and capital budgets.”

It said, “The ambition of transforming learning experiences and bringing about a step change in outcomes for all children, this proposal may well undermine this intent and cause a significant delay.”

On a community cohesion test they added, “ This new proposal may well have a negative impact across the wider community of Kirklees.”

At a meeting in April, David Cameron told the parents, 'The whole aim of my government, if we win this election, will be to help people like you to realise your dream – a great school at the heart of your community.'

Local teacher and NUT union national executive member Hazel Danson is very concerned.

“If this proposal goes ahead it will have a devastating impact on the provision of good local comprehensive schools for all the children in Kirklees,” she said. “It will lead to social segregation on the grounds of class and race.”

The Birkenshaw school would create hundreds of surplus places and sap money from existing schools—jeopardising their future. It will be just big enough to serve the needs of the better off, largely white, BBPGA communities. The poorer white and Pakistani children who live in adjacent areas will not have a chance to attend. “

Free schools will open a gaping wound in free, publicly-funded schooling for the circling sharks of international edubusiness to attack.

But they will not provide any new freedoms for teachers, learners or their communities.

United campaigns involving everyone who treasures local schooling can defeat the Tories.

Anti Academies Alliance public meeting, Thursday 24th June, 6.30pm. Speakers: Fiona Millar, Alasdair Smith, Christine Blower (NUT), Chris Keates (NASUWT), Christina McAnea (UNISON), Paramjit Bhutta (Tower Hamlets head teacher), Mary Bousted (ATL)

Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, London, SW1H 9NH

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Article information

Fri 18 Jun 2010, 16:14 BST
Issue No. 2206
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