GAs the guardian reported, free school applications are open again. An ever more diverse range of groups are entering the fray for what is becoming a market in primary, secondary and further education. Currently free schools are not going to be allowed to be run “for profit”. It is quite obvious however that most of the groups entering the market are doing so in a gold rush-esque dash. The dash for our school system is very much based on the assumption that the day will come when these schools will be allowed to be run as “for profit” entities.
It is not just large American or Swedish corporations or ex-soldiers and Christian evangelicals in the bidding, but, also our universities are our entering the fray as well. Starting with the University of Birmingham, in a quick succession a number of universities have announced “local” university schools.
Universities entering the school system makes a certain amount of “sense” for as large, reputable educational institutions they already have reputations for educational excellence which they can trade on in this new market. Further University Schools can give the impression they at least will provide a guaranteed step up into a university career.
The free school system is problematic. It means the loss of democratic control over our schools as private companies, setting up shop get their hands on public money. It further means the undermining of the public school system as the new free schools take money out of the public system. However, compared to some of their competitors universities are probably the least insidious of the groups entering this market. At least a university free school will have a degree of accountability and even if being run for a profit the money will be being re-circulated in the education system, as long as the university remains public. Further we can use our positions as students and in student unions to tackle some of the problems that are occurring with free schools being set up.
The University of Birmingham’s free school is potentially damaging to the public school system in Birmingham. There is a surplus of secondary schools places in south west Birmingham, where the school is planned to be built. It is clear then that the proposed new school will take resources and pupils away from existing schools in the South West area of Birmingham and thereby may challenge the viability of these schools. Therefore, there is a danger that the new school, rather than enhancing the city’s secondary education system, will undermine it. There are however, areas of Birmingham, mainly in poorer or the poorest parts of the city, where there are a shortage of secondary school places, were the school would be really useful.
University free schools are going to appearing across the country, compared to the worrying Christian groups, the dubious corporations they look saintly. If universities pressured by students and students unions can take steps to ensure universities don’t take easy options which will damage the public school system then university free schools could be positive additions.
Below is the copy of Birmingham Guild of students seven policy points that in conjunction with local campaigners we are seeking to achieve.
1) The University works alongside the City Council and Local Education Authority to ensure that any proposed new school is located in an area which best serves the educational needs of [Birmingham]
2) The University consults directly and openly with all schools in [South West Birmingham] to ensure their views on the proposed new school are taken into account
3) The University provides more information about how it will ‘work in close partnership with schools across [Birmingham] and the region, acting as an active and supportive partner and collaborating particularly closely with Teaching Schools and their Alliances’ in order to ensure that:
(i) as many pupils and schools as possible benefit from the expertise within the university; and
(ii) the proposed school will not have an unintentional negative effect on particular schools nearby or further afield
4) The University provides clarification about how, if places are oversubscribed, decisions regarding admission will be made on a non-selective basis if the aspiration to ‘serve pupils from across [Birmingham'] is to be fulfilled
5) The University School maintains a close link with the Local Educational Authority by ensuring that an LA Governor sits on the Board of Governors
6) The structure of the Board of Governors mirrors the structure found within Cooperative Trust Schools to ensure there is as much parent a local involvement in the running of the school as possible.
7) That any further education students have access to a funded and independent student union to represent them.
Keep an eye out for what your university is doing and get in touch with local campaigners for support if your university starts taking steps to set up a free school.