Today's entry on the blog is a guest post from Andy Bruce, an e-learning advisor from Oxfordshire.

Well clearly it's not 'free' to set up and run a free school and there are requirements that all free schools have to meet. They also have exactly the same legal status as academies, which we are increasingly aware of.  So what is all the hype about?

Michael Gove is passionate about the free school initiative and seems to have made it his highest priority. There are several underlying principles that he feels will drive up attainment including:

  • More financial autonomy for schools
  • Less prescriptive curriculum
  • More choice for parents
  • Increased competition
  • Local solutions for local problems driven by parental demand

This can be seen in quotes from Mr Gove such as:

We want to do everything possible where we can extend the choice that parents have – but we're not talking about placing a burden on individual parents. We're talking primarily about liberating teachers.

He also has his eye very firmly on international educational achievement and our relatively low ranking (e.g. PISA).  Not surprisingly he has then looked at international initiatives that he felt addressed some of these issues, with a particular focus on Swedish style free schools and the charter schools programme in North America, and on the 18th June 2010 opened the door to the first applications to set up free schools in the UK. (There is of course a lot of debate in the wider educational world about the effectiveness of these alternative provision models.)

The radical element to free school philosophy is that anyone can set one up including:

  • Teachers
  • Charities
  • Universities
  • Independent Schools
  • Community and faith groups
  • Parents
  • Businesses (currently not-for-profit only)

NB Existing maintained schools are only able to pursue the academy route.

The potential impact of this could be huge and the implications are very unclear. The entire range of possible viewpoints is readily available through educational commentators and there also seems to be confusion amongst the coalition policy makers, with big questions developing over the adequacy of funding and a redevelopment of the application process on its way, 10 months into the initiative. Maybe the big question is do we take a risk averse approach and fight to maintain the status quo or do we embrace this opportunity and work collaboratively to fully evaluate the potential gains?

It's also interesting to look at the response of the LAs, which have been urged by Michael Gove to back free schools wherever a new school is needed. There is a cautious reaction from some, but others, such as Hertfordshire, seem to recognise that it could be a very positive part of the local solution. In embracing the concept the likelihood of a balanced provision across the locality increases.

So what has been the initial response from interested development groups? Are there thousands of dissatisfied parents and teachers waiting in the wings to take the transformation of education into their own hands?

As of the 7th March 323 proposals had been submitted to the DfE with 40 of these being approved to move forward to business case and plan stage and beyond. Whilst this could hardly be described as a rush there is certainly a significant interest being demonstrated and no doubt many groups will be holding back to see how the first wave of applications are being treated.

The only school, at present, to progress through the final funding agreement stage is West London Free School, led by the high profile Toby Young. What is perhaps of significant interest here is that the vision is firmly based on a very traditional, academic route, modelled on the independent school sector including compulsory Latin up to the age of 14. The Headmaster, Thomas Packer also seems to play down the importance of technology in the curriculum which is concerning given the digitalisation process taking place in the world around the school. It is perhaps not surprising that the first school past the post has a vision at its heart that could have been formulated by Michael Gove himself.

My very real hope is that as the proliferation of free schools unfolds they will truly enhance provision in local communities and give a credible challenge to established thinking on schooling that moves us forward into an educational system truly fit for the 21st Century.

This is a guest post written by Andy Bruce and as such does not necessarily reflect the views of RM Education. Andy taught maths for 23 years in Bury College, Lancashire and more recently at St Birinus School in Didcot, latterly as Head of Maths and E Learning.  He is now an independent e-learning advisor based in Oxfordshire with a passion for supporting schools to maximise their potential to inspire and engage their learners including an effective use of technology to achieve this.

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