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The challenges that face free schools can be overcome by learning from experiences elsewhere argue Loic Menzies FRSA and Laura McInerney. They set out the six predictable failures of free schools and how to avoid some of them.

In Beyond Beveridge, the Commission on 2020 Public Services based at the RSA outlined three shifts in public services that were needed: first, a shift in culture, from social security to social productivity; second in power, from the centre to citizens and, finally, a shift reconnecting financing with the purposes of public services.  The government’s flagship policy of Free Schools might seem an exemplification of these principles. However, our recent short book The Six Predictable Failures of Free Schools… and how to avoid them suggests that these changes will not be without difficulties.

We published the report in response to over 300 applications for Free School status being submitted to the Department of Education. This level of interest surprised many who had argued that people would have no interest in joining the coalition’s Big Society. However, my colleague Laura McInerney and I were concerned that many potential founders lacked an understanding of the difficulties they might encounter. This is not for lack of available information; the American academic Seymour Sarason spent decades studying the US equivalent of Free Schools (Charter Schools). He sought to understand why a third of these schools underperformed compared to those they were set up to surpass and why another 40% merely matched existing schools’ performance.

We have drawn lessons and recommendations from his work and believe that many of the problems founders face are endemic to the shifts recommended by the Public Services Commission and that we can predict the reasons why Free Schools could fail:

1.      Feelings of superiority and uniqueness

2.      Potential external constraints

3.      The myth of unlimited resources

4.      Limited time

5.      Conflict over goals and values

6.      Issues of Power and authority.

We believe that failures 1, 3 and 5 are closely linked to the three principles of the 2020 Public Service Trust.

In his foreword to Shifts in Culture, Power and Finance Matthew Taylor describes a shift in power towards “more localised and more personalised” education and schooling. We agree on the importance of a local perspective but fear that the first challenge - ‘feelings of superiority and uniqueness’ - can get in the way. Founders’ initiatives are frequently in reaction to existing ‘bad schools’. They therefore develop their plans in a silo, wanting to show that their school will be different. Community Progress Incorporated (CPI) in New Haven USA for example believed that poor provision was because services were dominated by public agency “dinosaurs.” CPI therefore set themselves up in isolation but as a result faced increased public scrutiny and attack because they were supposed to be ‘better than the rest’.

We argue that Free Schools need to set themselves up to be complementary rather than alternative. We believe that shifts in power should be about empowering citizens to add value rather than taking power away from existing providers and local authorities. Founders should seek to understand why provision is inadequate and bring practical solutions to the table.

A shift in finance would involve citizens gaining more control over what is spent. By putting money into the hands of citizens, Free Schools certainly have the potential to do this. Parent groups who found Free Schools can write their own budget or pick a school federation/management company. For example, the Wandsworth parent group investigated different providers and then chose how to spend their allocated chunk of the education budget. Eventually they engaged ARK because the charity’s approach was the best fit for what the parents wanted.

On the other hand, limited resources have been another stumbling block for many Charter Schools and cause the third predictable failure. Sarason found that well-intentioned founders are frequently over-optimistic about what they will be able to do with the finance they are allocated. They promise individual attention to pupils and extra provision but then fail to live up to their promises. This is partly a problem of government policy. Funding streams in the US have fluctuated wildly, making effective planning difficult. This problem has already begun to appear in the UK with the shock announcement on the 12th of March that the Department for Education would no longer be offering (up to) £200k for the development of proposals. Toby Young soon pointed out that his parent group might have been unable to take their school proposal forward without it. We therefore recommend that founders plan carefully: they should research average local school spending on special needs services, budget an additional 10% to ensure that promises can be honoured and write a “co-option plan” in case policy changes lead to the school being subsumed by the local authority.

The Public Services Commission concluded that shifts in culture involve citizens defining priorities for public services and solutions to needs. This brings us to the fifth challenge of defining goals and values and drawing policies from them. Groups of concerned citizens frequently believe that their collective passion for a goal will be enough to precipitate a shift in culture but this is not the case. School founders think their goals are simple; for example, “help everyone learn as best they can.” But how will achievement of the “best they can” be measured?  Through GCSE results or well-being scores?  Should you force pupils who do not want to work hard to do so through extended days/weeks/years? Time and again citizens sign up to a goal so long as it is vague and then struggle to have an impact once they have to pin their values down to specific policies. To overcome this we recommend a process of scenario modelling in which future controversial decisions are considered and groups thrash out differences of opinion on how to interpret the goal.

Policy makers and newly empowered citizens should pay close attention if they are to avoid falling into the traps that have beset so many Charter Schools in the US. We believe that our analysis of all six potential failures offers valuable insights into avoiding the potential pitfalls of upcoming shifts in public services.

L.K.M Consulting enables all organisations to deliver the outstanding services that young people deserve The 6 Predictable Failure of Free Schools... and how to avoid them” is published by L.K.M Publishing and is available from Amazon.


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