Last week the UK’s largest teaching union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), released a statement confirming that, 18 months after their initial request, they had secured an obligation on the Department for Education (DfE) to release free school impact assessments:
“The National Union of Teachers is delighted that the Information Commissioner has upheld the Union’s view that it is in the public interest for the Department for Education to release the impact assessments which the Secretary of State must consider about the impact of new free schools on neighbouring schools. Our initial request for this information was in October 2011. This is a victory for the NUT’s campaign for openness and transparency.
These assessments must be made under Section 9 of the Academies Act 2010. The Information Commissioner’s decision effectively puts these assessments into the public domain. The NUT believes that it is vital for the public to understand what criteria are being used to make these decisions, given that free schools clearly impact on local schools and that millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money are being spent.”
Of course I welcome the long awaited release of whatever information exists on the basis for approval of all new schools, particularly as we are all funding them. I am particularly interested in understanding, as the statement puts it, “what criteria are being used to make these decisions”.
When I read this item last week it caused me to return to look at the 2010 Academies Act and remind myself of precisely what obligation it places on the Secretary of State in relation to this issue. The full legislation is available via this link:
The key section, as referenced in the NUT statement is Section 9 “Impact: Additional Schools”:
(1) This section applies when the Secretary of State is deciding whether to enter into Academy arrangements in relation to an additional school.
(2) The Secretary of State must take into account what the impact of establishing
the additional school would be likely to be on maintained schools, Academies
and institutions within the further education sector in the area in which the
additional school is (or is proposed to be) situated.
I have read the whole of this document and I can find no detail on the basis of the Secretary of State’s assessment. He must “take into account” the impact on existing schools. That seems to be it. Tellingly, there does not seem to be a formal requirement to provide documentary evidence of this “assessment”.
I have long had my doubts that any such documentation exists, what concerns me is, if it doesn’t, how can the DfE prove that this took place and how does the taxpayer know that state funds are being used wisely? That is why the NUT’s stance is important. It also re-emphasises how much power was handed over to the Secretary of State so early on in the new parliament and betrays, in my view, a concerning lack of scrutiny by parliament as a whole.
There is an assumption in the NUT statement that free schools negatively affect local schools and it is the extent of this which needs considering before approval is given. But what if the impact on neighbouring schools of a new school opening is precisely that which those making the decision on it’s approval wish to see?
I pondered this whilst browsing my Twitter feed yesterday when I came across an interesting tweet by Sam Freedman, a former adviser to Michael Gove. It was made as part of a conversation between other educationalists and the journalist Warwick Mansell on how “parental choice” is provided in other countries and how this is best funded.
Mr Freedman stated that excess supply is key to providing “choice” because without it only the well off can have a true choice as they can afford to move into the catchments of their desired school. It’s an interetsing and valid argument and one I sought to clarify in reply. Unfortunately I missed the boat as the conversation he had been a part of had closed some hours previously.
What if this position is shared by the Secretary of State? If this is the only way to provide “parental choice” then it follows that all areas of the country should have more school places than pupils. So the provision of more places than required is a desired outcome. A plus point in the “assessment” that the Secretary of State is required to do not, as many of us assumed, a negative.
The only restraint on opening school after school is funding of course. As we can see by the extraordinary £1bn overspend on the academies programme since 2010, Mr Gove seems to be operating in a different financial universe to the rest of government at present but even he does not have a unlimited resources.
As I imply in my tweet to Mr Freedman, because funding is provided on a per pupil basis, how do you safeguard the learning opportunities for pupils in existing schools and provide wide ranging options in all schools (including new ones) if the resources available to them are effectively cut in areas with surplus places?
It seems to me this is the fundamental flaw in this approach. If the free school programme is intended to provide competition between schools then it is not doing a very good job. The way new schools are approved and then funded provides them with a preferential position in this new “market”.
Given that we know, under current funding rules, that the resources of neighbouring schools will decline in relation to the intake of the new school, wouldn’t that encourage parents to think that the new school, with guaranteed funding over and above per pupil money, is the least risky selection?
Perhaps this could be offset if there to be a mimimum level of funding provided to schools regardless of their pupil intake, maybe for a defined period after a new school opens? If free schools are being provided guaranteed sums for the first years of their existence (I believe seven years is typical) as stated in their funding agreement, why can’t existing schools have an equivalent pot?
This is surely the only way to provide genuinely fair competition between schools if that really is central to your education policy. The current situation is not a level playing field and, as such, it does not provide fair “parental choice”. It also discriminates against those parents and pupils that selected their schools before a new one existed. Why should their learning options reduce because of changes in the local provision?
Of course in Brentwood an impact assessment already existed before a proposal for a new school was formulated. The 2009 Essex CC consultation is very clear in it’s conclusions which is why it was agreed that Sawyers Hall College should close (“Why Sawyers Hall College closed and what was intended to replace it” http://wp.me/P2dr6s-ak).
The advanced application of the report’s conclusions by the time the proposal for Becket Keys free school emerged means that the potential effect on other schools, and their pupils, parents and staff was well known to the proposers and the Church that gave it its blessing. They felt that their wish for a school providing daily prayer was a more important consideration.
When the impact assessment for its approval is released, should it exist, we will be able to judge whether the Secretary of State was aware of Essex CC’s conclusions and the basis upon which he overrode them.
If he aimed to create a “market” then it is certainly not a free and fair one.