School exam faces Leighton Andrews

Jonathan Brooks-Jones says the application for Cardiff’s Whitchurch High to become a Foundation school represents a thin end of a wedge

One of the Conservative manifesto promises was the ability for parents or groups of individuals to set up a ‘Free’ school and claim local authority funding to run it. Free Schools will be run with all the functions contracted out for a management fee. They will be modelled on the Swedish and American systems where schools can be taken out of local authority control and run by independent organisations.

However, in a departure from the Swedish and American systems the schools will be ‘not-for-profit’ organisations. At first glance this seems sensible. But the result will be that one of the main perceived benefits, improved performance driven by competition, is taken away. Once the management fee has been received what impetus will there be for schools to improve if there is no profit motive?

The pertinent question is where we want the responsibility for education to lie, with the state or with the private sector. It doesn’t take a huge leap in imagination to envisage a private sector-run school churning out pupils that achieve qualifications that coincidentally match their own employment needs.

Of course, our current school system is not free from the profit-making motive. Catering, cleaning, drinks machines and so on are all currently contracted out. This has led to high sugar drinks being sold in our schools and Jamie Oliver style campaigns. How much further do we want to contract out school provision?

There are some perceived benefits in Free Schools. They can set their own admission criteria, hire and fire their own staff, decide pupil numbers and influence curriculum. Most arguments for Free Schools emphasise innovation and flexibility as the driving factors. It is impossible to deny that some schools will benefit hugely from this system, but that is the point. The ‘Free’ school itself might benefit, but what about neighbouring schools and communities?

The reality is that Free Schools will represent budget cuts to the wider education that local authorities can deliver. Weaker schools will decline. Free schools, with their ability to set their own admission criteria can effectively choose the most profitable and least demanding children, leaving surrounding schools, with their decreased budgets to pick up the slack. The governing body of Free Schools will be less democratic and representative as a result of being taken out of authority control. Governors elect other governors who conform to their views and it is easy to see how private sector interests might play a part. Local authorities will still have a statutory duty to perform admission and special educational needs functions but will receive less funding overall. This will further disadvantage neighbouring school budgets.

What does this have to do with us in Wales? Education is devolved in Wales so Free Schools should not affect us here. There is currently an application on Education Minister Leighton Andrews’ desk for Whitchurch High in Cardiff to become a Foundation school. Foundation schools hold a rather unusual position in terms of funding and governance. Like ‘maintained’ schools, they are funded by central government via the Local Education Authority. But unlike maintained schools, they are not under the governance of the LEA. Instead, the governing body has greater freedom of control over the running of the school.

Most of the arguments for a school obtaining foundation status involve greater flexibility, control over admissions, and hiring and firing of staff. While these may be beneficial to the school concerned, they have a knock on effect on local authorities, schools and education. The admissions controlled by a foundation school affects neighbouring schools and makes it hard to predict pupil numbers in forward planning. There is nothing to stop a school from continually expanding until other schools are forced to close due to low numbers of pupils. Pupils will then have to travel further afield to attend school instead of having local schools in their communities. There is also a risk for staff, who would be transferred to the employ of a governing body. The governing body may change regularly and their actions are not mediated by wider governance.

There are eight secondary and four primary Foundation schools in Wales. In its 2008 School Effectiveness Framework the Welsh Government has made it clear that it has aspirations for collaboration and partnership working between local authorities and schools. The framework sets out clearly the responsibilities that local authorities have to schools and looks to them to drive change. As it says:

“The Children Act (2004) made LAs particularly responsible for improving outcomes for their children and young people. In particular, each LA has to take the lead in making its Children and Young People’s Plan, in bringing together all the people needed to make the plan work, and in monitoring the plan to make sure that it is making a positive difference.”

Under this framework schools also have a responsibility to work in collaboration with neighbouring schools, under the guidance of the local authority. This method of working is called tri-working.  Foundation schools do not fit easily into this pattern.

With their admissions criteria Foundation schools are a backwards step towards a grammar school system. If Leighton Andrews allows this application for Foundation school status it could start a chain of events that mean that every school could apply and the School Effectiveness Framework would become redundant.  Foundation schools are not very far removed from Free Schools. To what extent to we want our schools to be in control of the state and to what extent in the control of outside or private forces?

Jonathan Brooks-Jones is sub-editor for ClickonWales

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