James McEnaney: Tory bid to hoodwink Scots with Free Schools

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Having seen the SNP adopt several of their policies – most notably the imposition of national standardised testing – an emboldened Conservative party is now zealously pursuing what it sees as the educational holy grail: the introduction of English-style Free Schools in Scotland.

Sometimes euphemistically (and dishonestly) referred to as “autonomous” or “community” schools, such institutions are funded by the state but exempt from local authority oversight. Their backers insist that this apparent freedom is key to improving education, removing the dead hand of council control and challenging the vested interests that get in the way of world class schooling.

It is seductive in a simplistic, skin-deep sort of way – but scratch beneath the surface and a very different picture emerges.

In contrast to the claims made by their supporters, the reality is that the Free School model is designed to serve right-wing ideology, not communities. It is about shrinking the state, lowering expenditure and opening opportunities for turning public money into private profit.

Business plans currently being considered by the Scottish Government (for St Joseph’s in Milngavie and the Al-Qalam and Steiner schools in Glasgow) insist that schooling can be made both better and cheaper by allowing the creation of Free Schools. They include the presumption that such schools will be able to set their own pay and conditions (breaking national bargaining rights for teachers), that parents will have to pay for “non-core activities” and that local businesses will “join the cause by providing prompt and cost-effective goods and services”. In the case of the Steiner school, a system of “voluntary” parental donations is proposed. Overall, they assert that Free Schools “will introduce healthy competition into the local education system”.

The plans are also overflowing with meaningless, waffling buzz-phrases and extraordinary yet unevidenced claims. Five minutes reading these documents should be enough to convince anyone that the model being proposed must be kept as far away from Scottish education as possible.

Yet the Tories continue to act as cheerleaders. At a recent FMQs, Ruth Davidson demanded that the government get on with establishing such schools; Liz Smith beat the Free School drum during a recent interview with Time Educational Supplement Scotland; and in a rhetoric-laden article for The Scotsman last week, former Conservative MSP Brian Monteith urged John Swinney to instigate reforms that would allow for the establishment of the schooling equivalent of Ryanair and easyJet. They are, unsurprisingly, entirely wrong.

The idea that these sorts of politically driven changes to school structures will improve education is a fantasy, and a dangerous one at that. Sweden pioneered the use of such schools and saw the quality of education decline; serious educational and financial concerns have been raised about the American equivalent (Charter Schools); and in England academics from the Institute of Education at London University have shown that there is “no evidence that government investment in new education structures such as academies and free schools has had any impact on pupil performance”.

At best, Free Schools would be an expensive distraction from the real work of improving Scottish education; at worst they would do serious damage. A fragmented system, with schools competing (for students, financial support and recognition) will not reduce inequality, it will reinforce it.

That might not be much of a problem for the Tory party but Scotland’s children deserve a whole lot better than being sacrificed on the altar of right-wing ideology. John Swinney should ignore the Conservatives’ ill-informed carping on this issue and focus on what matters: freeing teachers to do their job while replacing the thousands of staff lost over the past ten years.

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