News and Comment

What are the keys to success for free schools?

Tuesday 26 October 2010


With the passing of the Academies Act in July, and the first 16 new free schools announced last month, attention has again focused on the coalition Government’s agenda for educational reform.

OPM’s experience of community capacity building for the previous Government’s new schools competitions provides some important insights for this agenda that should not be lost in the heady rush of change.

Our experience shows that if free schools are to be community-led and sustainable, they will require community capacity building and a strong role for local educational authorities. In what follows, we outline this argument based on our experience, and discuss the issues of the free schools agenda.

Community capacity building

OPM’s involvement in new schools competitions, including the whole-school re-organisation on the Isle of Wight in 2009, focused on working with people who were short of the skills, knowledge or inclination to contribute to setting up a new school. The mixture of people and organisations now running secondary schools on the Isle is a good example of what can be achieved by carefully managing opening education to a market of providers.

These secondary schools now benefit from the expertise and resources of one of the best academy providers in the country, while other successful bidders were people from the local community who felt they could do better than what had gone before. These successes were not achieved overnight, and needed adequate resourcing to support the local community in assuming responsibility for their children’s schooling.

There is a risk that this vital groundwork of community capacity building will be lost in the rush to outsource schools to the fastest bidder. Without this capacity building, free school sponsors are likely to remain a relatively small and elite band of individuals, limiting power and influence over schooling to a mobile minority.

A strong role for local educational authorities

The free schools agenda presents a challenge to local educational authorities that should be welcomed in principle. An apathetic attitude of ‘can’t so won’t’ can persist among parents where they feel bereft of power or influence in their children’s schooling. Increasing the political involvement of communities in schooling should be encouraged.

But the free schools model, as currently formulated, risks ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ where the role of local educational authorities is concerned.

The Academies Act 2010 removes the need for local authorities to be consulted about setting up an academy and gives new academies or free schools renewed powers to set their own curriculum. In brief, the free schools agenda extends the previous government’s academies model by limiting the role of the local authority to planning school places, which the marketplace of providers then responds to. This presents the risk of providers with the necessary expertise and resources to deliver school improvement cornering elements of the market, whereas other schools will have to buy-in this expertise. If the free schools model does not allow for a pooling of resources and expertise, inefficiencies are likely to develop.

An excellent example

St. Paul’s Community Development Trust is an organisation responsible for running a local school, and other children’s and youth services in Balsall Heath, Birmingham. St Paul’s Community School is a powerful example of how communities can be empowered to take responsibility for their local schooling, and meets with the government’s vision for free schools in almost every respect, except for its continued reliance on the support of the local educational authority.

Due to the school’s size, it was deemed financially unsustainable and scheduled for closure. In response, local people argued that the school was too important to close given levels of deprivation in the community, and since then, the school has been run by St. Paul’s with grant support from Birmingham City Council.

At the time of writing, St. Paul’s has little incentive to apply for free school status as this appears to offer no extra funding for the school beyond what it is already receiving from the council. Given that the school is based in a disadvantaged area of Birmingham, the local educational authority also provides vital expertise to the school about social care needs for children. In short, St. Paul’s and schools like it stand to lose vital funding and expertise by moving more fully out of local educational authority control.

The keys to success

Our experience highlights how free schools stand a much greater chance of success where communities get support to take greater responsibility, and where local government enjoys a strong strategic relationship with schools. The free schools agenda must not lose sight of the important and enabling role that local educational authorities can play, or assume that local communities – particularly in more deprived areas – are ready, willing and able to assume greater responsibility for schooling without sufficient support.

By Tim Whitworth, OPM senior fellow and Chris Reed, OPM research assistant