Free Schools – The pathway to selection and privatisation?

Ok, going back I made the point on Twitter that the Free Schools programme was just going to lead to Privatisation and Selection.

Free schools – private company interest

Just type free schools into google and see the private companies encircling the programme to see some of the people that will benefit.

No private companies can run free schools?

None can make a profit, but can invest in high salaries for Chief Executives or have high charges for administration (for which they can make a profit).  But none of this we can see as Academies and Free Schools aren’t judged on the same measures as they don’t have to report spending as other schools.

On privatisation: quite clearly where a private company (including the independent schools now planning to convert to free school status) runs a school, it expects to make a profit. This is an ideological divide. The privately educated bods at the DoE will say, as they have in the NHS, that provided it costs the state no more and the service provided is of high quality, that it shouldn’t matter that profits are made. I think it does matter that education and health stay unambiguously publically funded from taxation and accountable through elected organisations to those taxpayers.

As pointed out in the TES “Ka-ching! Free-school cash could bring elites into town”

Value for money

Cost of setting up a free school

The money ‘put-aside- for the free schools programme isn’t known. Gove is quoted as saying “We’re allocating £50m of capital over the next year, up to April of next year, in order to help get some projects off the ground,” he told Channel 4 News. “And then in the future this will be, obviously, a priority for our capital expenditure.”

Surely, a priority for the capital expenditure should be helping existing schools be better.  Whether it is through capital funding new buildings or helping schools dealing with old building maintenance.  The risk of all this money, DoE time etc etc being thrown at Free Schools is that the majority of schools then miss out to the detriment of the majority of pupils.  The new Pupil Premium will not fill the gaps in funding that have already taken place.

The Financial Times’ detailed scrutiny of the schools spending settlement reported that, “More than two-thirds of pupils will attend schools that suffer a cut in funding.”

To fund the salary inflation of headteachers something within the free schools system will have to give…less teachers?

Professor John Howson, director of Education Data Surveys, warned that headteachers of free schools could inflate salaries further. “If some of the ‘free schools’ get a lot of sponsorship, they will inflate the salaries of headteachers and other schools will try to match them,”

Value for Money (for Academies read Free Schools as well)

However, capital expenditure on new schools does not guarantee value for money, as the recent history of Bexley’s Academy shows

In fact the National Audit Office remarked:

“The rate of opening new academies has increased rapidly in recent years, creating challenges around timely staff restructuring and appointment of senior teams. If not dealt with effectively, these challenges can impact significantly on teaching and learning, financial health and longer-term sustainability.”

“Some academies are finding it difficult to achieve financial balance without additional, non-recurrent funding”

“With greater numbers of academies opening in recent years, the Department’s resources to administer and monitor the Programme have been stretched, particularly as funding is administered on an individual academy basis.”

“It cannot be assumed, however, that academies’ performance to date is an accurate predictor of how the model will perform when generalised over many more schools. Existing academies have been focused on improving underperformance in deprived areas, whereas the future academy population is likely to include schools with a much wider range of attainment, and operating in very different community settings.”

“The expansion of the Programme will increase the scale of risks to value for money, particularly around financial sustainability, governance and management capacity”

Selection?  Skewed intakes?

to remind ourselves of the benefit of not having schools that can cherry pick, which is what the free schools will do

“Yet we know from research that children can do better if schools are not socially segregated.  Increasingly our schools are just that, with half of all pupils entitled to free school meals (a proxy for poverty) concentrated in a quarter of secondary schools, while the top secondary schools take – on average – only five per cent of pupils entitled to free school meals, less than half the national average”

We know from examples of schools in the current system, that it is possible to design a school so that it becomes self-selecting. I use the example of the London Oratory School.  A catholic school, it draws children from a very wide area. It takes most boys into Y7 following selection criteria that are firmly based on the parent’s commitment to the church. Priority is given to those who are active participants in the church – reading at mass etc. ( This will inevitably disqualify those without the personal and financial resources to make such a commitment, however good their personal faith might be. In addition, it takes 20 boys into Y3 for a specialist music education, half of them as choristers. These children are given musical aptitude tests and assessed for their “suitability” for a music education.  As clever middle class parents will do – they know their way round the system and play it to get the best possible education for their children. You may note that LOS is going to administer the music aptitude selection tests for Toby Young’s WLFS. The style of the school will also discourage the less confident, less affluent parents. Uniform costs at least £400 a year, there is a “voluntary” termly contribution of about £50 per pupil, school lunches are compulsory and cost at least £2.50 per day (paid termly in advance or by direct debit), and there is an expectation that children, particularly those involved in music, will go on lengthy and expensive overseas visits at their own expense. The demands on parents are daunting (read a newsletter, it scares me,

I don’t deny that LOS probably provides the best nominally “free” and “non-selective” education in London, but it is also obvious that its intake is heavily skewed towards those in a position to comply with its rigid ethos.  WLFS making Latin complusory and conducting music aptitude tests will ensure the intake is unrepresentative of its locality. Not because of an overt intention to select, but because a school set up to be “academic” will attract an academic intake and exclude the rest, so it will end up creaming off the brighter kids from other local schools.

Which leads nicely to the controversy of Wandsworth & the free school’s decision to omit one of the local primaries from the catchment area.

Impact of Free Schools on existing schools

Great Cornard Upper School is eight miles from the site of the planned free school at Stoke-by-Nayland.  Head teacher Mike Foley says he is fearful about the impact the free school will have on his intake.

“Our worry is that if a free school happens in Stoke, a part of our catchment area which is more privileged, it will lead to a skewed intake,” he says.  “One school will have the privileged children.”  He fears that such a policy will mean the intake at his school becomes too heavily skewed towards children from more deprived homes.

“Motivation drops, and aspiration drops as well. In the end that will have an effect on results and it’s a downward spiral,” he explains.  Opponents of free schools claim they will tend to be located in middle class areas, because only more affluent parents will be motivated to establish them.

The Suffolk issues

But David Forrest, head teacher of nearby Sudbury Upper School, which will lose intake to the new free school in Clare, is concerned about elements of the policy.  “It stops us being able to run a planned education system within an area,” he says. “Any planning that you make to try and improve can simply be undermined by somebody saying ‘we as a group don’t like this so we’ll set up another free school’

Impact of Religious selection

Obviously, religious selection already exists.  I don’t believe it is a good thing that free schools, or any school, can select based on religion (especially ALL staff).  However, the Free Schools programme has been greedily jumped on by religious groups, desperate to set up schools that will only select from with their own community, as the admissions battle in Brent bore out.  However, the Government’s new white paper has removed the teeth from the admissions board, as Schools adjudicator will be able to consider complaints about Academy admissions, but no longer have power to change admissions arrangements.  So I expect these battles in the future to be won by the school.

In the past the As the Memorandum submitted by Accord to the Joint Select Committees on Human Rights lays out.

1.   Indirect social selection

Research by Professor Anne West[46] of the LSE and by the Runnymede Trust[47] has found that the complex selection procedures are used by religious schools give a significant advantage to wealthier, more educated and more determined parents.

2.   Indirect ethnic selection

It is true that some religious schools have many non-white pupils, but the headline statistics on school denomination and ethnicity do not tell the whole story. Catholic schools, for example, are disproportionately based in urban areas and accept many students from African and Caribbean backgrounds. However, the proportion of Bangladeshi pupils taught in London religious secondary schools is just one per cent, or a quarter of that in non-denominational schools. There therefore a risk that in areas with a strong overlap between religious and ethnic identity, religious admissions procedures can reinforce ethnic segregation, a problem highlighted in the Cantle Report. Furthermore, those black ethnicity pupils who do attend faith schools are less likely to be free school meal eligible or to have low prior attainment than those in community schools.[49]

3.   Religious selection

The impact of religious admissions criteria on social and ethnic selection are very important, but they should not be allowed to obscure the problems directly caused for individuals and society by religious discrimination.

(a)   Individuals

For parents who are unable to meet the religious criteria of faith schools discrimination can greatly diminish school choice. It is the strength of community schools that they are open to all regardless of beliefs, but the consequence of the current system is that religious families usually have a greater choice of schools.

Consider, for example, two families—one Catholic, the other not religious—who wish to send their daughter to a secondary school in Liverpool. Both families are happy to send their child to either a religious or a community school because both prioritise factors such as proximity to home, results and friendship groups over the denomination of the school. The prevalence of schools with religiously discriminatory admissions means that the religious family will have a greater choice of schools, even though the denomination of the school is of little consequence to them.

(b)   Society

According to a recent poll conducted on behalf of the EHRC, religion is today thought to be a significantly more divisive factor in British society than race.[50]

Religious (as opposed to cultural and ethnic) divisions between young people are unique because they are directly promoted through discriminatory school admission policies. It is notable that the duty to promote community cohesion—which itself resulted from the failure to pass a quota system to open up faith school admissions—has done virtually nothing to tackle directly discriminatory admissions policies. We question the wisdom of a set of policies that seek to ameliorate divisions within and between communities, while at the same time leaving state-funded schools free to discriminate. Direct discrimination by public bodies should be the first thing to be tackled, not the last.

Finally, the Pressure from within to change the admissions

So how long will this ‘fair’ system be in place before it is replaced – Selection is on the way

The DoE can correctly say that Free Schools cannot select, cannot make a profit and will raise overall standards by inspiring others to do well and reaching out to help local schools. The trouble is, as many of the citations above illustrate, that Free Schools are not neutral additions to the education landscape. Even where the intentions appear entirely inclusive and good-hearted, their impacts on other local schools are likely to be negative.

Thanks to twitter for inspiring the blog and @SchoolDuggery for the parts of this blog that are well written (see italics)


7 thoughts on “Free Schools – The pathway to selection and privatisation?

  1. This is a comprehensive and persuasive argument. I’d be very interested in what you think of my estimates about free school funding, which suggest that since most of them are small schools the funding will have to be much higher than for larger schools.




    1. Thanks Francis, I am working my way through your posts and comments. It makes sense to me that small schools cost more to run, but moreover, add in the start up costs and suddenly it seems very expensive.

  2. The article may be comprehensive but in my opinion it is far from persuasive – if I may say so, no more than a ‘bog standard comprehensive’ piece of research.

    Here are just 3 reasons why I say that.

    First up, the blogger posts that ‘As pointed out in the TES “Ka-ching! Free-school cash could bring elites into town”’. So far so good. But if one then actually bothers to click on the TES article, here is what it says: ‘key figures in private education do not believe that the free-schools revolution will be embraced by existing schools in the private sector. “The vast majority of schools are unlikely to want to either become a free school or set one up,” says David Hanson, chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools’.

    Secondly – consultants like Gleeds and the like have been working in education for years. Its laughable to state ‘Just type free schools into google and see the private companies encircling the programme to see some of the people that will benefit’. I just think that is very one sided and lazy reporting. In relation to value for money, I dont think you will find many who lay claim to that for BSF?

    And the final example relates to our own Free School here in Wandsworth. Our pupil intake based on FSM profile will be similar to both the Wandsworth and London averages. Somewhat bemused by the spin the GMB union had put on our admissions policy, we published the following note – that while lengthy – anyone wanting to know the truth should take time to read:


    A number of comments have been made about the proposals for the Bolingbroke Academy many of which are misinformed. The following seeks to correct a few of the worst misunderstandings.

    • More than 2,500 people have signed up to support the campaign for a new school in the former Bolingbroke Hospital. They are a very broad cross-section of the community and not dominated by any particular group. Those opposing the school have identified around 25 (of several 100 who objected to the NHS planning application to use the site for residential development) who work in the finance sector (including banks). They did not tot up the many teachers, doctors, health service workers, local government workers, legal, charity and voluntary sector workers, shop keepers and full time mothers who are as or more prevalent in the campaign. There is no employment group that dominates the neighbourhood or the campaign.
    Why feeder schools?
    • The inclusion of ‘feeder schools’ in the admissions process was designed to make the school more inclusive not less and widen the geographic and demographic group that could get places at the school. Using straight line distance to the school as the admissions criteria (which is used at other Wandsworth schools along with banding and the like) would (if the school is over subscribed) potentially exclude all but those in the streets around the school which, everyone acknowledges, is a middle-class area. Feeder schools extend both the geographic area that has access to the school and the demographic mix – given that two of the schools have free school meal entitlement well above the national and London average.
    • Without the feeder school policy most if not all the pupils could come from Honeywell and Belleville, which are the schools closest to Bolingbroke and in the more middle-class area or, indeed, from private schools. Contrary to being a barrier to working class children the inclusion of Highview and Wix schools gives these children access to places.
    Why these feeder schools?
    • There are natural boundaries in every community. The feeder schools are part of the south Battersea community, i.e. the area where secondary places are scarce, which the school was expected to serve. Belleville and Honeywell are 428 and 783 metres respectively from the school site while Highview is 879m. Falconbrook School (which is 1,642m by shortest walking route) is in north Battersea and already close to a good secondary school (Battersea Park, which is one of the most improved in London). Wix is closer to the Bolingbroke site than it is to Battersea Park school. Falconbrook is closer to Battersea Park school than to the Bolingbroke site. We think that local parents should support their local borough school. South Battersea does not have a local school, which is why we are campaigning for one.
    • 41% of Highview pupils and 31% of pupils at Wix primary school are entitled to free school meals – well in excess of the national and the London average – suggesting a far broader income mix than some reporting implies. Many pupils come from the Peabody Estate and the Winstanley Estate, precisely the children that the feeder policy includes and who would lose out under a straight line distance policy.
    Why not simply add Falconbrook?
    • With the existing feeder schools there are already nine forms of entry eligible (Honeywell and Belleville being very large schools). Adding more schools simply raises unrealistic expectations and would lead to a very small number from each school gaining places, fragmenting the potential school community.
    Who was consulted?
    • There was a wide consultation on the admissions policy and all local primaries (including Falconbrook) were sent leaflets and letters and encouraged to respond. The parents group had meetings with a number of primary schools to discuss the policy and invited Falconbrook to meet them. The consultation closed on 31 December. Of the respondents, 75% agreed with policy and 25% opposed, although most of these did so on the basis that their children went to private schools and would not be in feeder primaries. (There are seven nearby private primary schools.) Arguably this suggests that the “rich bankers’ children” are likely to be those excluded by the policy, in favour of children in local state primaries. The NSC’s only objective is to achieve a local state secondary school for local children.
    • There is a statutory admissions consultation conducted by all boroughs for 2012 admissions policies. When Wandsworth conducts this consultation there is a further opportunity for any school that feels it is disadvantaged by the policy to seek its review.
    Were alternatives considered?
    • It would be possible theoretically to have an alternative either to straight line distance or to feeder schools, namely to have two notional front doors to the school (as is the system used by Ark Academy in Brent). In such a case you could have a certain proportion of the intake admitted on the basis of distance from the school site and the rest admitted on the basis of distance from another site (e.g. Clapham Junction station). This system was not adopted as is far more complex and harder to understand and communicate locally.
    How will admissions be managed?
    • The academy’s admissions arrangements will be managed by Wandsworth Council and are subject to the same admissions legislation as other maintained schools. All schools require oversubscription criteria to determine how places will be allocated if there are more applications than places available. If there are fewer applications from feeder schools than places available all other places will be allocated by Wandsworth Council admissions department.
    • The campaign for the new school was supported by all three political parties at the last general election, all of whom acknowledged the shortage of secondary places in the area and where birth rates are increasing at one of the fastest rates in the borough.
    • Any further queries on the above can be emailed to We would be delighted to hear from you.

    Completed by the NSC team, 18/1/11.’

    So our own Free School project is about putting children at the heart of the debate, not politics.

    Articles such as ‘Free Schools – The pathway to selection and privatisation?’ are two a penny in the blogosphere, but very often they add more heat than light to the debate.

    So there you are, that’s just my opinion of course, but before I get off my soap box I’d just like to say don’t believe the hype around Free Schools being the demise of state education.

    And finally, for what its worth, I happen to agree both with the Barnado’s report and indeed what Will Hutton says about the independent sector – ie, cut the charitable status and enforce a more diverse intake. Combine Hutton’s idea with the Free School policy and hopefully you would then see a narrowing of the achievement gap – which is actually what the Free School policy is about in the first place.

    1. Many thanks for your detailed response to my ‘bog standard comprehensive piece of research’. Also, many thanks for your clarifications from the Guardian article. Also, as someone opening a Free School I would be surprised if my comments were persuasive!
      My point is that all the Free Schools are putting at risk the current education position. I am sure that individual cases the schools are being set up to benefit all. But, of the ones I am reading about they seem thin on the ground. If your ethos is to truly unleash the potential of the local community then you will have my support. You have also, then been poorly represented in the press. However, I fear that like the West London Free School, the purpose is to enable middle class parents to ‘avoid’ other local schools. As I point out in my blog that the whole admissions system is about to be made toothless. Yes you’re the admissions process can pay lip service to an education for all, but my concern is that the reality will be different.
      Whatever, your opinion of private companies they are entering the market and yes direct profit from the school won’t be made, but a profit will be made somewhere otherwise there is no point in entering. Yes these consultancies are already in existence, but without the Free Schools I fear for their businesses as budgets are dramatically reduced in schools.
      Whatever happens the funding & expertise that is being thrown at the Free Schools would be better served enabling the existing schools continue their rapid improvements. This policy, which is political, will only hinder those improvements to the benefit of the few.
      I am glad that my blog may add some heat to the process, as it requires proper scrutiny and not lip service. Yes our points of view may be different, but it is important that these discussions happen in public.

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