The clearest indictment that our schooling system is failing comes from the government. The introduction of free schools could be said to be a remedy for the malaise that our schools are facing. The National curriculum, unanimously voted by teachers as the curate’s egg; good in parts, has ailed and failed since its launch in 1987. Billions of pounds have been invested for scant return. But will new academies and free schools, unfettered by the national curriculum and government scrutiny, be the panacea our schooling system needs, or create confusion our schoolchildren will condemn for generations?
The uptake to seek free schools status seems grossly under-subscribed. Head teachers, hounded by Ofsted inspections, targets, budget cuts and endless government educational initiatives had been expected to grasp this ideal opportunity to opt out. But the flood of anticipated applications for free school status turned out to be a trickle. Just 240 schools applied from the expected two to three thousand. Many were late applications where teachers and school governors fought with the implications of academy or free school status. Clearly the freedom from government, Ofsted and local education authorities were a huge plus for the schools, but they are not exempt from performing and the thought of going it alone and failing must have been significantly daunting. Other schools hover on the touch line waiting to see how the first tranche copes. As the new academic year starts many schools are only half full raising concerns over their financial viability. The new free schools need to attract a minimum number of children to generate their operational budgets from fees paid by the government per child attending.
A further unease is whether the initial enthusiasm to break free prevails. If the right teaching staff are not recruited and retained the chances of a schools’ success will be severely impaired. From the teachers perspective they seek the better performing schools to provide job enrichment and career enhancement. There is a risk the brand new free school operating without a pedigree will only be able to recruit those teachers willing to take such a risk.
A huge benefit for children attending free schools is the amount of additional learning time involved in the school year. State schools are contracted to provide 38 weeks of schooling (196 days a year) a year. Free schools are able to provide up to 51 weeks a year. The additional learning time is further enhanced by a reduction in the time allocated to exams and the tutoring for exams that occurs generally in state schools preoccupied with the need to hit performance targets. State schools spend around nine weeks a year in exam tutorials. Parents may also welcome the longer teaching year giving them financial benefits from reduced childcare costs.
There is a lot of good that can come from the free school concept. Freed from government intervention and Ofsted policy they can invest more time to the learning process. Moving with the times rather than national curriculum could produce more rounded students better matched to the education demands of commerce and industry. But there is a high risk some will fail. The stand-alone structure may cause some to suffer withdrawal symptoms. This will be a catastrophe for the children involved.