The closure of a third ‘free’ school, this time in Durham, raises some very serious issues for our whole education system and for our democracy. The coalition government invested £900,000 of taxpayers’ money in the Durham free school for only 34 students when it opened in September 2013. Now after five terms it has attracted only 94 pupils, and almost five times as much resource is being spent on these pupils than on those in Durham’s comprehensive schools. This is a failed experiment in state sponsored inequality. Is there not enough inequality in England without the Department of Education deliberately adding to it?
Nor should we be surprised that some of the parents who have sent their children to the school leap to its defence. They argue that they are acting as good parents by placing them in much smaller classes, but they react badly to being told they are behaving like bad citizens by trying to secure unjustifiable advantages over other parents whose children attend local schools. These parents are also learning a hard lesson, namely that the administration of ‘free’ schools is deeply undemocratic. They are controlled directly by the Secretary of State who can close down a school as quickly as she sets one up without consulting anyone. An Ofsted inspection of the school found that, despite all the extra resources, it is ‘inadequate’ in all the aspects examined; and the Secretary of State considered the weaknesses so irredeemable that she has decided to close it.
The people I feel for in this debacle are the pupils who were removed from their friendship groups, sent to the ‘free’ school and now have to be found a place, with the help of the local authority, in local schools which have to pick up all the pieces. So politicians have at last found a role for local authorities after years of denigration, namely, to rescue those pupils who have been failed by Tory experimentation.
I also predict that no politician will be held accountable for the massive disruption in the education of these pupils. Michael Gove, the chief architect of this debacle, has already been removed from the Department for Education; he has walked away scot-free. King and Crewe point to this lack of accountability as one of the main reasons why our politicians are so prone to repeating avoidable blunders. Politicians of all parties should be made to explain what steps they have taken to safeguard the interest of students (or other users of services, such as patients) before they implement their pet initiative, in case it fails.
Finally, in a democracy we have the right to be told exactly how much this latest disaster has cost us as taxpayers But more important than the money is the damage done to the pupils and the spirit of community in Durham. Education at its best brings citizens and families together so that all can flourish. The ‘free’ school in Durham has brought division, inequality and heartache to families and educational failure.
Frank Coffield is Emeritus Professor of Education. His latest book is Beyond Bulimic Learning: improving teaching in FE (Institute of Education Press)