The Wrong Solution to the Wrong Question

So-called ‘free schools’ have become an important flagship policy for the current Conservative-dominated government. More important because they have found a means to get people to run with their policy. The means, as always, is money. Local Education Authorities have never really had the means to build or rebuild schools without central Government funding. Now virtually the only way a new school can now be developed in the UK is by attaching the ‘free schools’ banner.

The policy is ideologically driven and founded on a shaky evidential base. The prototypes, ‘Free Schools’ in Sweden, ‘Charter Schools’ in the USA, follow the same model of autonomous management and state funding. Neither, however, has produced any convincing evidence that these institutions lead to any discernible improvement in standards over the municipally or state managed systems (1). Indeed, there is some evidence from the Swedish experience that the Free Schools experiment may have led to a fall in standards (2). Nonetheless, ‘free schools’, unproven as they are, suit the ideological priority of the Conservatives – reducing the role of the state and the introduction of market principals to previously public areas of British life. Regular readers will know I’m no big fan of ‘the state’ myself but, being a pragmatic libertarian, I prefer a side order of evidence to compliment my main course of liberty.

Of course not even this Government really subscribes to the oft-peddled notion that a group of random parents or activists will just set up a ‘free school’ in an empty office building. The reality is that people in the education ‘business’ will create these new institutions, if not for ‘profit’ to expand their empires. So it’s is in East Reading, where the  Oxford and Cherwell Valley College (OCVC), which picked up the corpse of Reading’s FE provision when Thames Valley University (TVU) (now the University of West London) pulled out, are consulting on their 14-19 ‘Reading Technical Academy’ proposal.

The Reading consultation meeting, held last night (Monday 23 April), was reasonably attended despite a 6:30 start and a wet night and proved to be quite revealing. It is fair to say that the proposition of a 14-19 school has not proved popular in east Reading, not least because of the missing 11-13 element in a situation where school places in the area are to come under serious pressure in the next five years. Added to that is the fact that the proposition is not and will not be a ‘Reading’ school. The catchment on which the consultation is based advertises 30% of places for Reading post codes. This amounts to 45 places each year for Reading children – it could be more, but that would depend on take up in the remaining catchment, that stretches out in a 15 mile radius, not filling the remaining places.

The meeting was told, by OCVC Chief Executive, Sally Dicketts, that the DfE “would not approve” the 11-19 institution OCVC had first proposed and that the DfE insisted on the ‘sub regional’ nature of the school and therefore the principle, if not the precise formula, of the wider catchment. What will interest the local community most is the arrangement the DfE seem to be allowing to take place to provide the site to OCVC.

The intended site, at Crescent Road, has been in educational use for many years. Ironically in fact it belonged to the predecessor Reading College before the take-over by TVU. When TVU pulled out of Reading they retained the site which they had effectively closed. Now, according to one of the answers given by Ms Dicketts, part of the site is being purchased from TVU (The University of West London) on behalf of OCVC by the DfE for the new ‘free school’. The remainder of the site, which includes one of the most significant open spaces in east Reading, Ms Dicketts said, was to be “sold to a developer”.

This will horrify most people in east Reading. The ‘Alfred Sutton field’, as the site is known, first came under threat in the late 1980s when Conservative controlled Berkshire County Council floated the idea of a ‘science-based business park’ on the site. Ten years later a series of land swaps involving the demolition of redundant college-owned buildings and their replacement by housing nonetheless protected the green space which has become an ever more important community resource hosting youth football clubs, tournaments, fetes and festivals as well as meeting Alfred Sutton Primary School’s needs. A dozen or so years further on and it would appear that this important green space is directly threatened by a project championed by among others, Rob Wilson, the MP for Caversham. OCVC first denied the suggestion of plans for housing development and Mr Wilson, who recently launched a blatantly ideological attack on the LEA, accused Labour of “grubbing around in the dirt for votes” when they suggested that plans for development were likely  (3).

The proposal for the Reading Technical Academy would seem to enjoy little support in east Reading. It is the wrong solution to the wrong question. While the notion of an institution that provides a specialist education in computer science and engineering may have some merits, the OCVC proposal is neither fish nor fowl. And while the notion of changing school at 14 certainly has merits the ‘middle school’ system, unfortunately in my view, does not operate locally. It is hard to see exactly who this will be marketed to and to whom it will be attractive, nor how it will succeed without becoming in some way selective. The meeting was asked how the likely gender imbalance of the school, given its specialisation, would be addressed. The panel said they were aware of the potential problem, though the irony that their academic partner is the Reading (boys grammar) School seemed lost on them. It is an indication of narrow ‘tick the box’ thinking – there is an equally worthy girls grammar school or any number of successful co-ed schools they could have picked.

Though whatever the opposition to the school, the likely opposition to the prospect of the concreting over of a key green space in east Reading’s urban environment, one which Labour politicians including myself and the former MP, Martin Salter, in his time as a local councillor pledged to protect is likely to be even greater. I wish east Reading residents well in this battle and certainly hope, whatever the outcome on the Technical Academy, the current generation of Labour politicians will honour the pledges of their predecessors.

 

Notes 

(1)   There have been numerous studies of Charter School performance in the USA. The outcomes are contradictory which some, notably CREDO (Stanford University, 2009) shows a negative outcome while others, notably National Bureau of Economic Research (2004) suggest a positive impact – though mostly on their ‘competitor’ schools. It is worth noting that even in these cases the effects were found to be marginal either way.

(2)  Evidence from Sweden is also contradictory though OECD studies suggest a marked decline in the country’s educational ranking (2009 Programme for International Student Assessment) and studies at Stockholm University also suggest a negative impact. Needless to say the ‘for profit’ providers contend otherwise.

(3)  Reading Chronicle, 2 April 2012.