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From Jamie’s dream to… the free school nightmare

Free schools are a Tory ‘Big Society’ version of Labour’s academies, argues Sadie Robinson, and the aim is the same—to help the rich get their hands on our education

Issue No. 2242

The Tories want to destroy comprehensive education, weaken education unions and put children at the mercy of private, unaccountable groups. And they want to use billions of pounds of our money to do it.

Of course, they don’t describe their plans in these terms. They have a much nicer-sounding name for privatisation—“Free schools”—which are basically academies with a new name.

Unfortunately, some have swallowed the spin. Jamie Oliver’s new series, Jamie’s Dream School, is a good example. According to Oliver, all you need to give students a better education are some inspiring celebrities.

The idea is that teachers cause low achievement in schools. So if you replace the teachers, you solve the problem.

In an interview with the Observer newspaper last month, Oliver said he’d consider setting up a free school in the future. “Ultimately, it’s about an inspirational head teacher, employing a brigade of teachers with a clear, singleminded approach that is relevant to the area,” he said.

He went on to talk of his admiration for Tory education secretary Michael Gove, who he calls “Govey”, saying, “I really like his energy.”

So far Oliver’s experiment isn’t going too well. But the Tories won’t let reality get in their way. They want to expand academies and free schools not to benefit children but because they want to drive the market through education.


Academies, first introduced under Labour, have not delivered better results than state-run schools. In many respects they have been much worse.

An evaluation of academies in 2008 found that the proportion of poorer children attending them had dropped.

Some 45 percent of children in academies were eligible for free school meals in 2003—by 2008 this had fallen to 29 percent.

Academies expel around three times more students than state-run schools. They don’t deliver improvements either.

There have been design problems, such as lack of play space, and issues about the state of buildings children are placed in.

And now the Tories want to “relax” building regulations so that more of these schools can be thrown up quicker.

The Tories describe free schools as “empowering”. But the only people who are empowered by the privatisation of education are those who stand to make money out of it.

Free schools and academies are about breaking up national, state-run education and creating competing blocks where private businesses call the shots.

They don’t have to follow the national curriculum. They don’t have to match the pay and conditions of service for teachers at comprehensive schools. They don’t even have to have qualified teachers.

Like comprehensives, academies and free schools will be subject to inspections by Ofsted. But the new head of Ofsted is linked to a key investor in academies.

Baroness Sally Morgan, chair of Ofsted, is an advisor to the board of Ark, the private charity that runs several academies.

The government hopes that privatising schools will weaken and divide national teaching unions and make it harder for workers to defend national pay and conditions.


The Tories hate comprehensive education because they hate the idea of schools that cater for all children, whatever their background, without any selection.

Their vision is very different—where the rich get a better education than everyone else and where children grow up knowing their place.

The Tories focus on individual schools, teachers and heads to explain problems in education.This hides the real reasons for low achievement and alienation from education—like poverty and racism.

The government is refusing to admit how much money it is throwing at free schools. At least 15 free schools have been promised government funds and some 40 applications to set up free schools have been approved so far.

The Department for Education set aside £50 million in funding to “kickstart” its free schools programme.

But the cost of one school is estimated to be £15 million—and costs will inevitably rise.

That means the minimum cost of the 40 free schools approved so far could be around £600 million pounds, and then there are running costs (see below).

The government is diverting money from comprehensive education to fund a handful of private schools—while slashing funding for the seven million children in state schools.

But there is growing resistance. More strikes have taken place in schools over academies recently than over any other issue. And the government has noticed.

On 7 February, Tory MP Margot James asked Michael Gove to “investigate the activities of the Anti Academies Alliance, which is threatening a series of political strikes against any school seeking academy status”.

Gove’s reply was this: “I am grateful to my honourable friend for drawing the House’s attention to the activities of the Anti Academies Alliance, a group that is sponsored by, among others, the Socialist Workers Party.

“There are a number of politically motivated strikes that some have been contemplating.

“I hope that members in every part of the house will condemn any politically motivated strikes that some have been contemplating.”

The war is on.

Comprehensive schools

Schools that all children can go to, regardless of ability or wealth. The state funds them and they follow the government-defined national curriculum.

They don’t select their students and have raised standards since they were introduced after the Second World War.

Academy schools

Schools that the state funds but which are run by private groups or individuals. The unaccountable groups that run them decide the curriculum. They don’t have to stick to nationally agreed pay and conditions for workers.

They are free from government and local authority control.

They have not raised standards. Labour introduced academies.

Free schools

The Tory version of academies, and the same rules apply. The Tories plan to drastically increase the number of academies and free schools because they allow businesses to get control of schools.

Currently they are not allowed to make a profit. But free schools in other countries do—and British ones could follow this route in the future.

How much do free schools really cost?

Free schools are expensive. That’s the verdict of research undertaken by the Local Schools Network.

It says that the average running cost of a school is £1 million a year, plus another £4,400 per student.

By definition, smaller schools deliver higher average costs per student. Free schools tend to be smaller.

So, “A school with 400 pupils would cost £2.732 million to run per year, an average cost of £6,829 per year. If in its first year it had only 60 pupils, as many free schools will do, it would in theory cost £1,224 million, a cost of £20,000 per pupil—nearly £15,000 more than the average cost of a pupil.

Others have pointed out that free schools have a tendency to set up shop in listed buildings, which are more expensive to maintain.

The Tories are refusing to say exactly how much they are spending on free schools.

Until free schools are made open to the public, they are not public bodies—and so are exempt from freedom of information (FoI) requests.

Education secretary Michael Gove’s New Schools Network got a £500,000 grant to advise anyone thinking of setting up a free school.

Instead of advertising the job of who was to lead it, the government simply appointed Rachel Wolf—Gove’s former adviser. The NSN is a charity so it’s also not bound by FOI legislation.

The more free schools cost, the more money is transferred out of the public sphere into the private, which is precisely what the Tories want.

For all their rhetoric about the deficit, money is no object—as long as it’s going to the right people.

For the full research go to

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Sat 12 Mar 2011, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2242
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