Blog by Melanie Tucker, Principal
mtm attended The Spectator’s ‘Schools Revolution’ conference last week. Now in its second year, the event was designed to consider the impact of freeing schools from local government control, in particular through the coalition’s academies and free schools policies. But what has happened? What are the benefits and the risks, and what impact is reform having on the education market?
In the past year the number of academies has risen to 460, and by April it is feasible that this will have reached 600. 16 free schools will open in September 2011, and there are a further 320 proposals in the pipeline. According to Michael Gove this represents “the fastest rate of school reform in English history”.
This indicates that Gove’s reforms are beginning to shake things up and we are seeing a polarisation of views, with even usually indifferent onlookers taking notice. The academy programme has seen some positive improvements in outcomes for pupils but it’s early days, and we have yet to see what real impact free schools will have, both on pupil recruitment and their levels of achievement.
In free school projects with which mtm is involved we have seen growing support from parents. This was endorsed by Rachel Wolf director of the New Schools Network who said that she sees “a massive pent up demand for free schools.” This has certainly been the case with the Waveney High School project in Beccles where there has been a strong response from parents who want a first class school that will enable their children to achieve more in rural Suffolk where there is a history of pupil underachievement.
But these reforms are not without risk and there are some significant barriers to progress, namely the constraints of planning which have not been freed up at the rate the government promised, and the availability of capital to enable groups to move their plans to fruition. There is also evidence of the demands of some local authorities causing delays.
The risk for parents and pupils is that being free does not necessarily guarantee school success, especially if there is a weakness in the quality of commissioning. The risk for stand-alone free schools and academies may be that they will be subject to increasing regulation if the DfE become more concerned about things going wrong.
As one speaker noted – the academy programme is one of the few things going right for the government and so they are determined it will meet with success. There is certainly a missionary zeal on the part of the government to see school improvement and to diminish the power of local authorities and unions by the use of market forces to achieve the reforms. But what impact will it have? Two thoughts:
- There will be more of a patchwork of school provision, made up of academies, CTC’s, technical schools, free schools, and fee-paying independent schools, with different patterns of provision according to where people live.
- Schools will collaborate in clusters, federations, and chains more than before and while this will tie up the market for them it could have a detrimental impact on pupil recruitment for those outside these groups.
And on the issue of enabling profit? At the conference Michael Gove said that he was reluctant to see those who run free schools and academies taking a profit, but it would appear that he has left the door open. In mtm’s Independent Education Sector Report 2010 we said that we could not see the government allowing profit in their first term. Given the nature of the coalition with the Lib-Dems, (ideologically against free schools and certainly against profit taking), this will certainly be the case. But we predict that if Conservatives get in for a second term they will allow profit taking in order to see their reforms through at the desired rate, and respond to parental demand for school improvement.
The upshot? The academy and free school programme will be a real driver of structural change in the schools market, impacting on all education providers. This will be given momentum by parental and public opinion no longer tolerant of “bog standard schools”, particularly given the requirements of universities and employers for qualifications and core skills that will add value to their children’s careers.
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