There is mounting criticism of the ‘chaotic’, ‘brutal’ free school policy and lack of government support as at least five free schools shut down this term.
When Lorna Middleton was interviewed for her job as headteacher at St Anthony’s free school in the Forest of Dean in March 2017, she felt full of optimism about the future. The little school, based in two Victorian houses linked by an extension, had been lined up to join a local academy chain and move to new school buildings.
By the time she started the job that September, however, that plan had been abandoned and instead a programme of refurbishment had begun – work that would cost taxpayers £840,000. Middleton has never been given a reason for the change of plan.
Then, last Friday, the school closed for the final time, shut down by the DfE.
‘Freedom works; and the word is spreading’
So said Michael Gove, then education secretary, in 2011 in a speech praising his academies and free schools’ policy.
What are we, seven years later, with evidence from the real-world of schools intruding on Gove’s heady ideology, to make of his claim that mass academisation would raise school standards?
A four-year study by academics from the Institute of Education Hierarchy, Markets and Networks concludes that, far from achieving freedom for schools, Gove’s education reforms have resulted in “chaotic centralisation”. School leaders, say the researchers, have been given “a semblance of autonomy and self-governance”, which is more than matched, in practice, by externally driven targets.
Kinsley Academy may officially be less than three years old, but its redbrick buildings stand as a reminder that there has been a primary school here, serving this rural, former mining community in West Yorkshire, for well over 100 years. Jade Garfitt didn’t hesitate to send her son, aged five, to the school: Kinsley born and bred, she felt she’d got an excellent education there herself.
Kinsley is part of a wave of schools that have converted into academies – state-funded but independent of local authority control. In 2015, it left the auspices of Wakefield council to become Kinsley Academy, joining one of the hundreds of charitable companies the government calls “multi-academy trusts”, which between them run thousands of schools across England. This is a key plank of the government’s schools strategy under which high-performing schools in each trust help the struggling ones improve.
But in Kinsley, the reverse has happened. Lauded by Ofsted a few months before it joined the Wakefield City Academies Trust, Kinsley has seen standards plummet to well below the national average. “I’ve had to go to teachers to ask for homework. I’ve had to argue with them to change my son’s reading books. I’ve taught him all his times tables at home,” Sarah Jones, who has two children at the school, tells me.
The Department for Education spent more than £115 million on free school projects that went on to fail, new data shows.
The government has updated its register of capital spending on free schools, which details the acquisition and construction costs for all mainstream free schools, as well as information for university technical colleges and studio schools, which technically count as free schools.
Analysis of the data shows that, since 2010, £63,983,295 has been spent on eight UTCs that went on to close or announce closure. A further £28,926,340 has been shelled out for 17 studio school projects that didn’t work out, and £22,899,290 was spent on mainstream free schools that failed.