What the New Schools Network doesn’t tell us about Free Schools (part 3)

And here is Part 3:

Innovation

Claim: Free Schools are using their freedoms to innovate and raise standards.

This is justified by quoting an NSN survey of free schools which asked schools whether they were planning a longer school day, a longer school year or variations to teachers’ pay and conditions. It showed that a significant proportion of those responding (arguably a self selecting group) were planning to do one or more of these. However there is no evidence offered to justify a claim that any of these changes have any effect on standards.

There is then a vague and unreferenced set of assertions about curriculum innovation. It is true that there are positive examples of real innovation amongst free schools. Peter Hyman’s School 21 is an example. Greenwich Free School was also regarded as a beacon until Ofsted found it needed improvement. Other kinds of innovation that may be less palatable are Steiner schools and schools built around transcendental meditation.

NAO concluded that “the Department has not made full use of a growing evidence base to enhance its programme management…. The Department does not routinely capture data on schools’ use of freedoms or the pattern of local demand. It has yet to fully consider which factors have most impact on school performance, for example, occupancy trends or the departure of head teachers. It has also yet to determine a full set of indicators to assess the impact of open Free Schools on other education provision in an area, or value for money

In other words, no one really knows what is going on and what works and what doesn’t.

Unqualified teachers

Claim: it is misleading to say that free schools employ unqualified teachers.

The number of unqualified teachers in schools was relatively high before 2005. This was largely teachers with overseas qualifications working in English schools at a time of significant teacher shortage. They were technically unqualified because they lacked UK qualifications but many were qualified in their own country. The teacher shortage was successfully addressed by the Labour government and the number of unqualified teachers decreased steadily between 2005 and 2010. Since 2011 it has increased. In all state funded schools, according to the 2013 workforce survey, 3.8% of teachers were unqualified. In academies nearly 6% of teachers were unqualified. In free schools 13% of teachers were unqualified.

It is not easy therefore to see how it is “misleading” to say that free schools employ unqualified teachers. They clearly do so in greater numbers than other schools.

This is justified by the assertion that schools are employing people who are experts “with a real passion for their subject”. There is no evidence that this is so. Nor is it a reasonable assumption that people with subject expertise do not need a teaching qualification. Teachers need to understand how children learn and develop, how to organise classrooms, how to manage challenging behaviour and how to assess and respond to pupils’ work. This is what being qualified provides.

Accountability

Claim: The independence that free schools have over their budgets comes hand in hand with a very high standard of accountability. Their financial reporting responsibilities are significantly more rigorous than maintained schools.

The point made by NSN that free schools publish externally audited accounts while maintained schools do not, is  basically an irrelevant technicality. All schools are audited – for maintained schools some parts of the process happen at local authority level but that doesn’t mean there is no checking and monitoring

The recent report of the Public Accounts Committee made it clear how poor the financial oversight of both academies and free schools is. See:

http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/public-accounts-committee/news/publication-of-report-education-funding-agency-/

Issues raised by the PAC include:

– A large number of breaches of financial regulations, especially around failure to submit financial reports.
– The Education Funding Agency lacks the capacity to be proactive in monitoring academy and free school finances. It relies heavily on whistle blowers.
– The EFA is not doing enough to address conflicts of interest : “We were concerned that individuals with connections to both academy trusts and private companies may have benefitted from their position when providing trusts with goods and services.”

It is also the case that academy and free school financial data is not shown in the DfE Performance Tables. Maintained school data is provided in a very accessible format but there is nothing for academies or free schools. The issues around this have been spelt out by Henry Stewart at http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2014/01/academy-finances-neither-transparent-nor-accountable-2/. While this article is mainly about academies, it applies equally to free schools. Henry points out that this situation directly contravenes a commitment given by the Prime Minister to the Liaison Committee in March 2012.

Nor has the DfE responded to the PAC’s requirement in 2013 that “the Department must insist that every Academy Trust provides it with data showing school level expenditure, including per-pupil costs, and with a level of detail comparable to that available for maintained schools. The Department must then publish this data so that proper judgements and comparisons can be made by Parliament and the public.”

As a consequence of all these failings, the National Audit Office has refused to approve the DfE’s accounts.

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