When the education budget was published in March, the government announced its intention to press ahead with the opening of more free schools. The government has pledged 500 new free schools by 2020 and more than 130 additional free schools have been approved since that pledge. The initiative is now underway as maintained schools unfortunately continue to wrestle with real-term spending cuts of 6.5 per cent over the course of this year, with two-thirds of secondary schools making cuts to staff.
It is true to say that the education sector has been in a state of turmoil over the past few years, with maintained schools suffering staff crises, funding cuts and diminishing resources. So, will the free school movement help these current issues?
Free schools are typically set up by groups of parents, teachers, charities, businesses, universities, trusts, religious or voluntary groups, but funded directly by central government. They are often run by an “education provider” – an organisation or company brought in by the group setting up the school – but these firms are not allowed to make a profit.
The schools are established as academies and are independent of local authorities. Unlike local-authority-run schools, they do not have to follow the national curriculum and have increased control over teachers’ pay and conditions and the length of school terms and the working day. So essentially, they are given more leeway than government run maintained schools, and as a result are considered to be more in keeping with the way independent schools are run.
The free schools initiative is expected to create 69,000 new places for pupils and also generate a cash injection of £320 million for the programme while more than £216 million will be set aside to rebuild and refurbish existing schools.
At Padworth we see the free school movement as a very positive initiative, as we believe it will create a bridge between independent and maintained schools, which historically has been challenging. This provides an opportunity to share ideas and areas of expertise by teaming up on project work, or even teaching collectively. For example, at Padworth, given our unique international and UK profile, we would be able to offer a cultural awareness programme to partnering schools in order to provide an experience that their curriculum does not offer. At the same time we would welcome the opportunity to offer subjects or areas of specialism from partnering schools to our students in order to transfer skills and knowledge. The main objective would be to work collaboratively for the benefit of the students, widening their horizons and enriching their education.
A great example of this is Bristol Grammar School which is sponsoring a new free school to accommodate more than 1000 pupils. This follows recent Government proposals to encourage selective schools to open non-selective schools in areas where there are high levels of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The new school will be funded by Government and will take local children from the age of 4 to 16, the idea being that this will make a positive contribution to a community that would otherwise have to contend with inadequate resources.
It is important that we provide a fulfilling education for all school age students and with the current funding issues, we think that a partnership between free and independent schools would be a good way forward. The sharing of facilities and educational expertise provides an excellent platform from which to forge positive relationships with other neighbouring educational establishments.
I do believe that it is time for the different school systems in our country to have a better understanding of each other and to come together to share ideas and resources. Drastic government cuts impact adversely on the very basics in schools – such as the funding of textbooks. The result is that the education of children is impeded. All schools, no matter the label, should have one common goal: to ensure the best possible education for each and every child so that they can achieve their potential and live a happy and fulfilled life.
John Aguilar, Principal, Padworth College