On 22 March​ 2012, David Cameron visited Kings Science Academy in Bradford, one of the first wave of 24 free schools that opened in September 2011. You can see footage of his visit online. The prime minister walks through the playground, hampered by children in grey blazers, with the school’s headteacher, Sajid Raza, at his elbow. Cameron wrote to Raza a few days later to thank him, and added a handwritten note in blue ink: ‘I was really impressed and have told Michael Gove about your work. Keep it up!’

Less than two years later, police went to the school and arrested Raza. On 6 March this year, he was charged with nine counts of fraud in relation to the school’s finances: three offences of fraud by abuse of position, three offences of false accounting, two offences of obtaining a money transfer by deception, and one offence of fraud by false representation. A week later, the school’s former director of finance, Daud Khan, and Shabana Hussain, Raza’s sister and a former head of department, were also charged.

Concerns had been raised about the school’s finances by anonymous whistleblowers. An investigation was undertaken by the Education Funding Agency; in October 2013 its report was leaked to the media. It found that of the £182,933 grant paid to the school, only £19,872 could be corroborated by the school’s accounts. Cash-book payments indicated that £76,933 had not been used for its intended purpose. During its first year the school apparently had no chair of governors, despite legal stipulations. But the school prospectus listed Alan Lewis, a former deputy chair of the Conservative Party, as its ‘executive patron’, and the leaked EFA report concludes that he had been the ‘chair of governors between September 2011 and October 2012’. Lewis also rented the land to the school, at a cost of £295,960 a year, for a twenty-year period. When the MP for Bradford East, David Ward, put in a request to see the tendering and valuation process for the deal, and asked whether a cheaper local authority site could not be found, he was rebuffed on grounds of ‘commercial sensitivity’. He put in further requests after Raza had been arrested, but was refused once more, owing to ‘ongoing police investigations’. Ward has made continual attempts, locally and in Parliament, to find answers to the numerous questions he has about the school, but has been blocked repeatedly.

EFA’s final report on financial irregularities at Kings noted that because it had opened as a free school it ‘did not have, as many academy converters do, access to experienced staff, and existing control frameworks and processes’. In order to open a free school, a group of parents, a religious group, a charity or a chain of academies has to make an application giving details of local support for the school, and the likely demand for places. There is no requirement that free school founders have experience of running a school, and no assessment is made as to whether the prospective founders will be able to meet the legally required standards of school governance.

In effect, this means that any group of parents who believe there is a need for a new school can club together and apply to set it up. Successful applicants have argued that there is a local need for Steiner schools, German schools, and schools that follow Montessori or Maharishi principles. An application to set up a Scientology school was unsuccessful. The ‘need’ for a new school isn’t necessarily based on an assessment of the number of school places available in a given area, but on parental choice and a clamouring for individualism in state-funded education. Petitions often suffice. One academy chain putting forward an application to start a free school in Doncaster offered potential pupils £500 to sign up: other free schools have offered iPads and bicycles.

The Discovery New School in Crawley, a primary, was another in the first wave of 24 free schools. Set up in a Grade II listed building, it aimed to teach 16 pupils per year according to Montessori principles: play-based learning, led by pupils. An Ofsted inspection in May 2013 found every aspect of the school’s performance, except the behaviour and safety of the children, to be inadequate. ‘Too many pupils,’ it warned, ‘are in danger of leaving the school without being able to read and write properly.’ After another Ofsted inspection in September 2013 showed no improvement, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for schools, Lord Nash, wrote to tell the school its funding arrangement would cease and that it must close.

The Discovery New School was the first closure, but not the most notorious. The Al-Madinah School in Derby was forced to close its secondary school when Ofsted, following an inspection brought forward after complaints were made to the Department for Education, called it ‘dysfunctional’. The school had not had adequate support or supervision, Ofsted reported, and its leadership – the school was run by community leaders – lacked the necessary experience. The school was unable to say how many disabled children it had enrolled, and since registers weren’t properly kept, couldn’t account for the whereabouts of its pupils: if children didn’t turn up, the alarm wouldn’t be raised until they failed to arrive home hours later. There were financial irregularities too, and the school was operating on an interim budget. ‘The school is in chaos,’ the Ofsted report concluded. Lord Nash wrote another letter.

The thinking behind free schools is market-based: open several schools in an area, creating a surplus need; parents will send their children to the best schools, and the rest will either improve or close. ‘There are people on the right,’ Fiona Millar, a journalist and education campaigner, told me, ‘who have always wanted to experiment with a pure choice model, where you create surplus supply to give parents choice then you force poor providers out of the market.’ But forcing schools to close by creating surplus demand next door is not the same as opening two coffeeshops and shrugging when one closes because the cappuccinos weren’t up to scratch. The emotional upheaval when children move schools isn’t negligible. And supply in the education market isn’t elastic. The introduction of free schools can be seen as the latest step in the gradual privatisation of state provision. To allow the ‘need’ for a free school is to imply that the local authority schools nearby aren’t good enough: the model supposes that the free school will win out when a choice is made, that the school run by a private company will thrive while the local authority school closes its doors.

Since the passing of the Academies Act in 2010, 255 free schools have opened in England; approval has been given to 156 more. The Education Act 2011 stipulated that new schools could open only if they were free schools or academies; a local authority is no longer allowed to open and run a new school unless there is a deficit of school places and no one has bid to open an academy or a free school. For the foreseeable future, free schools and academies will swell in number, and local-authority-controlled state schools will dwindle.

The free school policy was first introduced in Sweden in 1992. About a fifth of the country’s children are now enrolled in friskolor. The private companies that make a business of school provision in Sweden often advertise for ‘independent’ pupils: they don’t want those with lower grades or special educational needs. It isn’t only that bright pupils are likely to get good grades, thus boosting the school’s reputation, but also that good students require less teaching time. Some free schools run the day in shifts: some students come in the morning, some in the afternoon, making it possible for schools to recruit twice as many pupils as their buildings can hold, doubling the numbers enrolled without increasing teaching costs. In essence, the free schools scoop up the children it’s cheapest and easiest to teach: the municipal schools are left with pupils who require more support and are less likely to succeed. In Sweden, the more affluent population is concentrated in city centres; the suburbs are occupied by the poorest, migrants especially. The free schools tend to gather in city centres. A sure way to decrease a country’s overall educational attainment is to increase social segregation and inequality: free schools do precisely that.

The Programme for International Student Assessment ranks countries in the developed world according to their 15-year-olds’ educational performance. In 2000, Sweden was 15th in the rankings for mathematics. In the latest results, issued in December 2013, it was 38th, behind the UK and the US and below the OECD average. Some politicians blamed stagnant teachers’ salaries; others claimed the decline was fallout from the period when the Social Democrats were in charge; many blamed free schools. But everyone had to accept that the free school revolution had resulted in both greater inequality and lower overall academic achievement. The government was forced to impose minimum standards on free schools, including a duty to provide careers advice, a school hall and playing fields. The withdrawal of several private contractors exposed the precariousness of the free school infrastructure: allowing companies to run schools for profit does nothing to persuade them to stay when profits dry up. In June 2013, JB Education, one of the biggest providers of free schools in Sweden, declared bankruptcy. The company, whose schools were educating more than ten thousand students across Sweden, planned to sell 19 of its schools and close the remaining four. The timing of the announcement, shortly before the start of the new school year, meant families had to scramble to find alternative places for their children – and this wasn’t always easy, partly because in many towns, municipal schools had closed because of the competition from free schools.

Until JB Education’s collapse, Michael Gove was in the habit of invoking Sweden as the inspiration for the free school movement in the UK; comparisons to a small, socially liberal country helped fend off objections from the left. After 2013, however, these references vanished, replaced by a focus on charter schools in the US, which operate on the same principles as free schools. But charter schools too are hit and miss. When they work, they can work very well – but that is true of any school. Proponents of the free school system, and of the charter model, point to places where it has worked, such as Washington DC, and tend to avoid mentioning those where it hasn’t, such as Arkansas.

Unlike local authority schools and academies, free schools can employ teachers without teaching qualifications and, like academies, they can ignore national agreements on pay and conditions. Stem Academy Tech City near the Angel in London came to attention last year when some of its staff went on strike after the school announced its intention to introduce zero-hours contracts for teachers. The enormous amount of time teachers spend marking and planning lessons would go unpaid, and they would only receive a salary at all during term-time. Eventually Stem Academy reached an agreement with the teachers, but that wasn’t the end of trouble at the school. An Ofsted inspection in January rated its performance, including the quality of its leadership, as Inadequate – the lowest grade. The Department for Education had approved an application by Stem Academy to start another free school in Croydon. Following the Ofsted report, Stem announced it was withdrawing the application in order to focus on the Islington school.

Relations between Ofsted and Conservative educationalists have grown bitter during the coalition years. The first Ofsted reports on many of the free schools are damning; promoters of choice and the market in education criticise inspectors for scrutinising the schools too soon after opening. But three years is more than half a child’s secondary education. That so many of the first free schools have failed, and so spectacularly, has panicked their proponents. After much departmental foot-dragging over Kings and Al-Madinah, Nicky Morgan, Gove’s replacement as education secretary, announced suddenly in February that she was closing Durham Free School. Scores of parents expressed their dismay. David Ward, too, received a torrent of correspondence from parents of children at Kings, asking why the school was being singled out for investigation, and why its Ofsted report had been so damning. Perhaps this is unsurprising. Why would you, as a parent, accept the opinion of an Ofsted inspector who had done no more than sit in on a few lessons? ‘I always thought that the government was being naive in thinking the market would ensure only the best schools survive,’ Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the teachers’ union ATL, said to me, ‘because I think that parents, unless things are terrible, judge a school’s quality by their child’s safety and happiness. Those are two very important things, which market theory never takes into account.’

Since the 1980s, ‘parental choice’ has mattered above all else when it comes to arrangements for the education of children, and one of the consequences has been an erosion of confidence in education professionals. If educational theory and experience are valued no more highly than what parents want, does it matter if teachers are unqualified? And if parents don’t want their children taught the standard curriculum, shouldn’t their wishes be respected? It is this sort of logic that underpins the support for free schools; 28 per cent of them have opened in areas where there is no surplus demand for places. But prioritising choice over educational outcomes exposes the tension in the free school project. If the parents of the pupils at the Discovery New School were happy with their children’s education, even though many of them couldn’t read properly, should the school have been closed or not?

According to a 2013 study by the Sutton Trust, a third of professional parents admitted they had moved to a better area for their children’s schooling, and 8 per cent to a specific catchment area. Choice is a predominantly middle-class preoccupation, and becomes self-fulfilling: parents see their children’s good grades not as a foregone conclusion – the result of better nutrition, access to extracurricular activities and greater cultural capital – but as the result of their striving to secure places at the best school. Parents who have enough time and mental energy to set about opening a free school will also be disproportionately middle class. The unspoken subtext of complaints about ‘rough schools’ – the reason middle-class parents make such efforts to move for the sake of their children’s education – is that they are in low-income areas. Free schools are permitted to select up to 10 per cent of children by aptitude for certain subjects, which amounts to privileged access for middle-class children by the back door: it will be difficult for a child to demonstrate musical aptitude, for instance, unless her parents pay for her to have extracurricular lessons. And yet the evidence shows that free schools and academies perform no better or worse than local authority schools: for the most part, schools barely alter children’s life-chances. Their socioeconomic backgrounds, and the degree to which they are loved and stimulated during the first few years of their life, have a vastly greater influence on their future than the school they attend.

Though free schools were sold as the apotheosis of parental choice, only a few have been opened and run by community groups. Most of them are run instead by ‘approved sponsors’, a group of companies and chains that have been given permission to run free schools and academies. It is impossible to find out how the companies were selected and approved; it is also difficult to find out who is applying to be on the list. Laura McInerney, an education journalist and former teacher, submitted several freedom of information requests to the Department for Education, asking civil servants to release all the applications to form free schools they had received, along with the letters advising applicants of the DfE’s decisions. The DfE rejected her requests. McInerney complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office, which ruled in her favour. The DfE appealed to a First Tier Tribunal, describing her claim as ‘vexatious’ and arguing that the expense of meeting her request would be too high, and that disclosure would jeopardise commercial sensitivities. McInerney lost the appeal. ‘When it comes to schools the government need to remember they’re asking people to hand over their children for six hours each day and a chunk of their wages to pay for it,’ she told me. ‘Why should anyone do that and not at least expect to know who is using that money and time, and how they are using it?’

The cost of introducing a new school category, and with so little transparency, during a period of austerity has not escaped the notice of educationalists. ‘It’s a complete waste of taxpayers’ money,’ Bousted said. ‘And money we don’t have, apparently. So it becomes a vanity project.’ The new Harris Westminster Sixth Form was criticised by Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, after it emerged that the free school, with a set-up budget of £45 million, or £90,000 per pupil, would be the most expensive school in the UK. In its initial estimates of the budget for free schools, the DfE failed to account for the capital costs of land for schools. Land values in London and the South-East, where almost 50 per cent of free schools have been established, have rocketed over the past decade, so the capital expenditure on land for free schools is twice the initial projection. Building new schools in the hope that the competition will whip existing schools into shape makes no financial sense; much better to change the leadership in failing schools and spend more to improve existing school buildings.

In a report from May 2014, the Public Accounts Committee noted that £1.1 billion had been spent on free schools up to March 2014, of which £700 million was for land and buildings; £241 million had been spent in areas with no shortage of school places. While 87 per cent of primary places created were in places of need, only 19 per cent of secondary places were. The committee worried about the lack of transparency over free school applications: the DfE, it said, ‘was unable to give us a consistent explanation of how its decision-making process leads to certain applications’ approval and others’ rejection, and how this represents value for money’.

As with the NHS, the slow creep of privatisation in education happens below the surface. ‘There is this group of people,’ Millar explains, ‘who think England will get for-profit schools, and they want to be there at the beginning of it, because it’s a lucrative business once you get chains of schools.’ The money isn’t so much in running the schools themselves as in the opportunities it presents for doing other sorts of business. A chain might develop its own IT system to run its schools, for example, then license it out to other businesses. Or it might go into property management, like Greg Martin of the Durand Academy Trust (Jenny Turner writes about his exploits on p.10).

When Ofsted finds that a local authority school is failing, the school is taken over by an academy chain. When a converted academy is found to be failing, it doesn’t return to local authority status: it is handed on to a different academy chain. It’s a one-way street: theoretically, if standards slip, every school in the country could become an academy. Kings Science Academy has now been taken over by Dixons, a six-school academy chain, and a new head has been appointed. Sajid Raza’s trial has been set for June next year. Two of the larger academy chains are Ark, which already has three free schools and has plans for seven more, and Harris, which already has eight (including the £45 million school in Westminster) and permission to open six more. An EFA report in 2013 expressed concerns about the ‘extravagant expenses’ of E-Act, another large academy chain, and worried that the boundaries between it and its money-making subsidiary, E-Act Enterprises Limited (EEL), were blurred: there was ‘a culture involving prestige venues, large drinks bills, business lunches and first-class travel, all funded from public monies’. Until recently, E-Act had wild ambitions to open two hundred more academies and fifty free schools. Since the EFA report, prompted by former staff and whistleblowers, the director general has resigned and it is ‘regrouping’.

Currently, 8.3 million children in England are in primary or secondary education; only 580,000 of them are in private schools. That’s 7 per cent, a proportion that has remained unchanged for decades. The real change is the slow, quiet shift from local authority schools to academies and free schools: from schools run directly by councils and the state, to schools run by outsourced contractors. Between January 2013 and January 2014, 400,000 children made this move, as 1115 new free schools and academies sprang up. David Cameron has pledged to open five hundred new free schools by 2020 if he is re-elected: that’s 270,000 new places in new schools. The shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, remarked that this would mean more schools in places where they aren’t needed. He is missing the point: schools will lose out, but they won’t be free schools.

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Vol. 37 No. 10 · 21 May 2015

I enjoyed Jenny Turner’s piece, particularly the comparison between a school and a violin workshop, which tallies with my experience (LRB, 7 May). Dawn Foster’s article, not so much.

Both writers cited recent scandals involving academies and free schools as evidence that the coalition’s education reforms have increased the risk of failure in England’s public education system. But in order to show that, they’d need to compare the failure rate of academies and free schools since 2010 with the failure rate of all other state schools in a comparable five-year period and neither of them makes an attempt to do this. In fact, one million fewer children are educated in failing schools today than in 2010, and of those free schools that have been inspected by Ofsted to date, a higher percentage have been ranked Outstanding than the national average. In addition, a lower percentage have been ranked Requires Improvement or Inadequate, the two lowest Ofsted categories, if you take the schools visited since 2012 when Ofsted toughened up its inspection criteria. Both writers also neglect to mention the remarkable things that some free schools have achieved.

Foster claimed that free schools ‘increase social segregation and inequality’, but offered no evidence that this was happening in England. In fact, free schools are eight times more likely to be opened in England’s most deprived areas than in the least deprived. Foster also wrote: ‘Unlike local authority schools and academies, free schools can employ teachers without teaching qualifications.’ In fact, academies and local authority schools have always enjoyed that freedom – and the number of unqualified teachers employed by all state schools in England in 2010 was considerably higher than it was in 2012. Similarly, it’s not just free schools that are allowed to select 10 per cent of children according to their aptitude for certain subjects, as Foster claims. All state secondary schools are entitled to do this. Foster also said that free schools are likely to be opened in areas where there’s no need for additional places. But the National Audit Office, in its report on free schools for the House of Commons last year, found that 70 per cent of free schools places were in areas forecasting a need for more places.

Both articles cited the growing number of academies and free schools as evidence that England’s public education system is being ‘privatised’, but I’d dispute that. The only legal entities that can own state-funded schools in England are charities. True, some for-profits have set up charitable arms and they, in turn, now own academies and free schools, but the parent companies can’t (and don’t) make money from their involvement in these schools. It’s also true that profit-making companies can bid for fixed-term contracts to operate state-funded schools, but that was true before 2010, when they could bid to operate local authority-run schools. Foster describes academies and free schools as ‘schools run by outsourced contractors’. To my knowledge, only one for-profit company has been awarded a contract to operate an English state-funded school since 2010: Internationella Engelska Skolan, which Turner mentions in her article.

Of course, the authors could be using ‘private’ in a looser sense – to include the third sector as well as commercial companies. However, charities have been allowed to run state-funded schools for more than a hundred years. Many of the schools that have converted to academy status in the last five years were already owned by charities – all the voluntary-aided schools, for instance, as well as the foundation schools – so that’s not a sea change. And in any event, the crossing of the Rubicon, if that’s what it was (local authorities transferring buildings and the like to academy trusts), happened before 2010.

Turner and Foster’s suggestion that free schools and academies are free to do as they like, save for the light touch regulation of Ofsted and the EFA, is also misleading. The vast body of laws and regulations these schools are subject to is mind-boggling and their poor headteachers (and governors) waste hours of every day on compliance.

More misleading than simply neglecting these subtleties was the overall thrust of the articles, which is that the reforms initiated by Michael Gove (and to a lesser extent Andrew Adonis) were masterminded by evil capitalists, intent on squeezing the last drop of profit out of state-funded education. That simply isn’t true. Having spoken at length to Andrew Adonis, and knowing Michael as I do, I can say with complete confidence that their sole motive was to improve England’s public education system – in particular, to improve outcomes for the least well-off, who fared very badly under the pre-2010 state-run Shangri-la favoured by both authors. For Andrew and Michael, education reform is and always has been a moral crusade, not an attempt to hand control of England’s public education system to billionaire robber barons.

Toby Young
West London Free School Academy Trust
London W6

Vol. 37 No. 11 · 4 June 2015

Toby Young plays fast and loose with assertions and statistics (Letters, 21 May). The justification for enforced conversion of a local authority-controlled school to academy status (controlled by central government) is that this process of itself will improve a school. To date, there is no evidence that this is the case. Some academy schools fail, some academy chains that run a chain of schools also fail. In the case of academy free schools (loosely equivalent to US charter schools) Young calls for a like for like comparison with local authority schools. It’s of little relevance for Young to make comparisons between the localities in which the schools are set up. The comparison has to be with intakes of pupils. The three key measures are: numbers of pupils entitled to free school meals (a rough poverty check), numbers of pupils who speak English as an additional language, and numbers of pupils who have ‘special educational needs’. The Local Schools Network research gives us reason to suspect that where free schools have been set up and are compared with their nearest local authority schools, their intakes are significantly less on at least one of these three measures. This would suggest that selection has been covertly reinstated in publicly maintained schools in England. If the Tory Party thinks selection is desirable, let’s have that debate.

Michael Rosen
London N10

It’s hardly surprising, given his investment in the cause, that Toby Young ignores the main points in responding to my piece, and cherry-picks the data. As I wrote, only 19 per cent of secondary free schools are opened in areas with a shortage of places: a colossal waste of funds that justifiably drew the attention of the Public Accounts Committee. When free schools do open in deprived areas, the students they enrol are not the poorest; one of the problems people have with free schools is that they make it possible for sharp-elbowed parents to separate their children from the children of their more deprived neighbours. Of the first wave of 24 free schools, all but two have free school meals rates below the local average. An Institute of Education report on free schools in 2014 showed that 13.5 per cent of pupils attending primary free schools were eligible for free meals when the local average was 18.3 per cent; for secondary free schools, the corresponding figures were 17.5 per cent and 22.1 per cent. Creaming off the children of more affluent parents constitutes social segregation; so too does the existence of religious free schools.

Young seems to think he is held in high regard by free school advocates. When I mentioned his name in the course of interviewing a former Department for Education employee for the piece, my interviewee headbutted the restaurant table in exasperation. I have found the sentiment, if not the gesture, to be common among his ideological comrades.

Dawn Foster
London SW2

I work at Stem Academy, Tech City, which Dawn Foster mentioned in her original article because of our recent strike and failed Ofsted inspection (LRB, 7 May). The reason for the strike was the governors’ refusal to recognise our union. We were initially employed without contracts. When the contracts were finally sent out (after a long delay) we found that, without a union, we had no way of negotiating the unusually bad terms we were presented with; many of us would not have taken our jobs had we known these terms at the outset. We were granted union recognition after the strike and have since negotiated slightly better terms.

In my opinion, Stem failed its Ofsted inspection mainly because poor management prevents us from doing our jobs properly. Since the inspection, a ‘school improvement partner’ – an academy chain – has been selected (it isn’t clear to me whether by the DfE or by the governors) which will focus on teachers’ performance. Little is being done about the performance of the governors, which was also seriously criticised by Ofsted: ‘At the time of inspection the college does not have a stable management team, an effective organisation structure, or adequate management capacity in terms of staff and time. This has hampered progress.’ Governors of free schools need no qualifications to be put in charge of a school; a headteacher working for the governors needs years of relevant teaching and management experience. Yet the governors have the final say in most matters because the local authority is cut out of the loop. Is it surprising that free schools aren’t run effectively?

It is depressing to think about the future of the teaching profession. Cameron’s government proposes a change in legislation that will require unions to have a 50 per cent turnout, plus a 40 per cent share of the vote in a secret ballot, to be permitted to strike. This will make it almost impossible for teachers, and other public sector workers, to influence the terms of their employment through union action. When you consider that already around two-fifths of teachers leave the profession within five years, it is hard to imagine many able graduates deciding to become teachers in the future.


Toby Young makes some sound technical points about the role of new school providers following the Academies Act 2010, arguing essentially that the system is not being privatised because ‘for-profit’ provision is outlawed and the new schools are run by charities – which have been running schools for many years. But there is a significant difference in the case of academies. Both the New Labour and post-2010 academies are funded on the basis of an agreement between the secretary of state and the academy provider, which means that the new schools – in whichever category they fall – operate under contract law. Because the funding agreements vary, the rights and responsibilities of those other than the contracting parties vary. Parents are not themselves party to the contract, which can have implications for the recourse they have when things go wrong. It has always been something of a mystery to me why it was necessary to fund academies (from 2002) and free schools (from 2010) on the basis of contracts, since English schools had perfectly reasonable structures when they weren’t run by local authorities: the ‘voluntary-controlled’ and ‘voluntary-aided’ schools of the Church of England and Catholic Church, which coexisted with and complemented local authority schools for a century and a half before 2010.

Chris Husbands
London WC1

Vol. 37 No. 12 · 18 June 2015

Toby Young plays a number of tiresome tricks with the data in his response to Jenny Turner and Dawn Foster (Letters, 21 May). He restates the official mantra that academies and free schools can’t be considered as privatised because these schools are legally required to be charities and that while some for-profits have set up charitable arms that own schools, these ‘parent companies can’t (and don’t) make money from their involvement in these schools.’ This is a naive reading of the flood of evidence now emerging about the relationship between public services and private companies in education.

The National Audit Office found that many of the early sponsored academies (set up under Labour) were under pressure to buy services from their sponsors, while more than half of these sponsors later reneged on their financial pledges to the schools. More recently, documents obtained under Freedom of Information requests revealed that state-funded academy chains have paid millions of pounds to closely associated businesses, directors, trustees and their relatives. As reported in the Guardian in 2014, Grace Academy, which runs three schools in the Midlands and was set up by the Tory donor Lord Edmiston, paid more than £1 million either directly or through companies owned or controlled by Edmiston, to members of the board of trustees and to trustees’ relatives. Leigh Academies Trust, run by the national schools commissioner, Frank Green, has paid £111,469 since 2010 to Shoreline, a private company founded by him, in consultancy fees. Aurora Academies Trust paid £213,015 to Mosaica Education for educational services, reimbursement of travel expenses and use of its Paragon curriculum resource; at least three Aurora directors have a direct or indirect interest in Mosaica Education. Such cosy – although not illegal – arrangements were heavily criticised by the Public Accounts Committee, whose chair, Margaret Hodge, described them as ‘just wrong’.

Free schools, Young claims, are ‘eight times more likely’ to be set up in the most deprived areas than in the least deprived. But the key question is not where the schools are located, but whom they are admitting. (After all, Westminster public school sits at the heart of one of the more deprived London boroughs, as does St Paul’s in Hammersmith.) The Centre for Learning and Life Chances has found that free schools in poor areas take fewer children eligible for free school meals than other schools in their area or nationally. At Canary Wharf College, a free school in Tower Hamlets, one of London’s poorest boroughs, 4.4 per cent of pupils have been eligible for free school meals at some point in the last six years; according to figures from 2014, the average in Tower Hamlets as a whole is 69 per cent. The national primary school average is 26.8 per cent; the figure for Toby Young’s own West London Free School Primary in Hammersmith is 6.7 per cent. Young quotes the National Audit Office finding, from 2013, that 70 per cent of free schools are in areas forecasting a need for school places. But as the NAO points out, this was only in areas of ‘some’ projected need. Looking at areas forecasting ‘high’ or ‘severe’ need, the NAO found that only 19 per cent of secondary schools were being set up in such places. The NAO estimated that the government had spent £241 million on free schools in areas where no need was forecast at all.

The truth is that even if measurement is what you are after in education, academy conversion produces no magical improvements in results. Where academies and maintained schools start from the same base, maintained schools are marginally ahead on exam results. And, in a break from its often partisan use of data, a report earlier this year from the Department for Education revealed a worrying picture of underperformance by a significant number of academy chains. The coalition government poured billions into the dismantling and so-called reformation of our battered state education system, without producing any discernible overall improvement. Young says we have to understand that Michael Gove, and his supporters within Labour, such as Lord Adonis, are waging a crusade to improve the education of poor children. How then does he explain a recent LSE/University of Manchester assessment of the coalition’s record on schools, which found that while there has been a ‘striking policy shift towards a narrower education agenda’ over the past few years, in 2014 it was the lower-attaining students from poorer families who underwent the largest dip in achievement?

Melissa Benn; Janet Downs
London NW6; Bourne, Lincolnshire

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