Free schools – are the wheels coming off the cart?

Over the last three months a succession of stories has appeared in the media, all telling the same story  – Michael Gove’s pet free school project is in trouble. It the past Gove’s friends in the media have been less than critical of the Secretary of State for England’s Stalinist approach to educational reform. With a few exceptions they have turned a blind eye to the rapid centralization of power, dismissive approach to Freedom of Information requests and his high handed dismissal of those who oppose him as ‘enemies of promise” or reds under the bed. Initially they showed enthusiasm for the Pimlico Free School where a disciple of Gove’s was duly anointed as head teacher despite not having a teaching qualification. Adherence to the teachings of E. D. Hirsch seemed to be enough to meet the criteria for the school being signed off.

The media were largely supportive of this new project and uncritical of the notion that anyone with a degree of enthusiasm and the ear of the Secretary of State could run a school. Teaching qualifications were not deemed necessary, nor for that matter was experience. However, once the school was open for business reality dawned. Within six months of becoming head teacher, Annaliese Briggs the 27 old head teacher had quit although she will remain a governor at the school. Her resignation was widely reported in both the local and national media. Even the Labour Party, not exactly outspoken in its opposition to the free schools experiment commented on her departure.

Pimlico School has a number of features in common with several of the other free schools that subsequently hit the headlines and a pattern begins to merge. As reported in The Guardian, Pimlico School is “sponsored by the Future Academies charity set up by Lord Nash, a junior schools minister and one of Michael Gove’s closest allies.” (Remember Lord Nash, he crops up again.) Briggs had previously worked at the right wing think tank Civitas and had links with Gove.

A year earlier Michael Gove had praised Discovery New School which had been set up businessman Andrew Snowdon. Taking advantage of Gove’s largesse with public money, Snowdon appointed himself business manager while his wife took on the role of head teacher. Discovery New School was billed by its founders as the first Montessori free school despite a refusal by the Montessori Schools Association (MSA) to grant permission to oversee the introduction of its teaching methods. Subsequently the MSA claimed that they had “warned the DfE of the school’s likely failure” in 2010 before the school opened. (see here). In May 2013 the school was deemed inadequate by Ofsted to be inadequate thereby becoming the first free school to fail an Ofsted inspection. In September the school was inspected again and a recommendation was made that “it is essential that a credible professional is appointed to the headship without delay to provide the expert leadership necessary to remove the school from special measures”. Enthusiasm it appears is not enough, neither Briggs nor Snowdon had a teaching qualification which, under the circumstances might have been useful. In November 2013 Lord Nash (remember him?) placed the school in special measures and in December the DfE ended the funding agreement. In a letter to Lord Nash the Chair of Governors accused the DfE of informing the media of the decision to close the school before the school knew.

Hard on the heels of Pimlico School came the closure of the Al Madinah free school in Derby. This story broke after a report was leaked to the Guardian and news of the closure quickly grabbed the headlines managing to combine the failure of another free school with a negative story about Muslims in Britain. Once again Lord Nash stepped in to seal the fate of the school with his letter to the Chair of Governors making it clear that the Government felt that the school was beyond hope of recovery. As with Discovery New School the fate of the school was decided by an unelected government Minister who just happened to be the founder of two free schools, an apparent conflict of interest. Apart from the matter of self-interest and conflicts of interest, there are a number of lessons that can be learned from the failure of the Al- Madinah Free school.

As the year came to a close stories began to emerge about yet another free school in trouble. In 2011 the Telegraph, carried a story about a proposed free school in Bradford that had caught the interest of the Prime Minister as it appeared to exemplify his Big Society ideal. In March 2012 David Cameron paid a visit to the Bradford Kings Academy and praised the head teacher and its founders. Ever hungry for a photo opportunity, Cameron posed for the media with pupils and the head teacher Sajid Raja. Those photographs have come back to haunt him as they now appear alongside stories of allegations of fraud reported in the press (here and here) and the arrest of the head teacher as the result of a fraud probe. The Yorkshire Post article reveals that in common with Pimlico School, Bradford Kings Academy is another free school with close links to the Conservative party, noting that “the vice-chairman of the Conservative Party Alan Lewis is the school’s executive patron and the Kings Science Academy has been built on his company’s land in a deal worth almost £6m in rent over 20 years.”

Free schools are arguably Michael Gove’s most ideologically driven education policy and the enabling legislation was driven through Parliament  at a speed normally reserved for anti-terror legislation. Gove, it seems, will stop at nothing to realise his dream of introducing a marketised education system in England. In order to do this he has enlisted the support of those who share his ideal. Toby Young, Annaliese Briggs and Lord Nash are among Gove’s allies who have become well known but other allies have managed to remain below the radar. In September 2012 despite there being a large number of surplus secondary school places the Greenwich Free School opened in the Royal Borough of Greenwich. Why the funding agreement was signed off under these circumstances is unclear but the answer may be something to do with the co-founders. Jonathon Simons co-founder and chair of Governors is head of Education at the right wing think tank Policy Exchange, an organisation with which Gove has a close relationship. He is also a former employee of SERCO one of the Conservative Government’s preferred partners in the outsourcing of public services.  Perhaps more significant is that his co-founder Tom Shinner  is a Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State at the Department of Education. Despite having these two well-connected founders, it appears that all is not well at the Greenwich Free School, like Pimlico they managed to lose their head teacher less than two years after the school opened. It remains to be seen what judgement Ofsted will make when they get round to inspecting the school but no doubt if they join the growing ranks of free schools found to be failing, Lord Nash will be able to cover their backs.

When it comes to running a free school it appears that what matters is not what you know but who you know.


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