Britain has always had a strong reputation when it comes to education. Parents from across the globe want their children to be brought up with British values and a thirst for knowledge.
Yet the unhappy reality is that standards in state education are slipping and, increasingly, parents are forced to turn to private schools. The attainment gap between British private and state schools is the widest in Europe. The fact that 50% of Oxbridge students were privately educated shows just how far behind state schools are (only 7% of British schoolchildren are privately educated).
The problem is with the very concept of ‘state schools.’ The education system needs a good dose of localism if it is to prepare pupils for the modern world. The current centralised nature of education provision does not incentivise schools to improve standards. Schools have been inflexible to the needs of the communities they serve. Government regulations and targets, which increased dramatically during the Blair years, have stifled innovation and the development of new teaching techniques. Insisting that all schools should be the same implies there is only one ‘correct’ way to educate children. In fact, there are many effective methods of education, from which parents should be able to choose based on their knowledge of their children.
Choice and competition
‘Free schools’ are an example of power being transferred from local authorities to community groups – they give parents more choice and promote competition. Many of the current free schools have an ethos that is almost exclusive to private schools. They are able to deviate from the national curriculum, allowing for greater focus on skills that are relevant to that particular community and geographical area. They can also set their own teacher salaries, hire unqualified teachers and vary the lengths of the school day and year.
Local authorities cannot influence the admissions procedures of free schools. Also, funding is received directly by free schools as opposed to local authorities. Community groups are able to shape the education outcomes by holding the free school providers accountable and being actively involved in the devising of teaching strategies. Free schools can only survive if there is continued demand – therefore there is constant pressure to improve standards. State schools appear sluggish and bureaucratic by comparison.
A lesson from Sweden
Recently, Sweden carried out a study on its free schools (available here). It found that the growth of free schools led to improved exam performance and poorer students obtaining more university places. An important finding is that state school pupils actually benefit when a free school is established nearby. When neighbouring state schools face competition from a new free school, standards in those state schools improve. This is due to awareness that, unless they improve, they will haemorrhage pupils (and therefore receive less funding).
The Swedish study also found that free schools have produced better results on the same budget as state schools. Their success is not, therefore, merely due to more money being available and, indeed, they are more efficient in spending that money. The study concludes that free schools create more local competition and drive-up standards in all schools.
Many on the Left oppose free schools simply because of their independence from local government. According to Patrick Roach, of the teaching union NASUWT, free schools will ‘spread fascism.’ Apparently, parents cannot be trusted to look out for the best interests of their own children – only a benevolent nanny state can do this. Schools which are allowed to devise their own curriculum will nurture a generation of young Hitlers. This bizarre and desperate argument reveals a great deal about the Left’s blinkered devotion to the state. It is unfortunate that such people are willing to put political ideology before common sense.
Opponents also argue that free schools will be the preserve of the middle classes. Yet the majority of the free schools planned for 2013 will be based in areas of deprivation, or where there is a need for new school places – 88% of the approved free schools for 2013 will be in areas that face a shortfall in places, and 67% will be in deprived communities.
Better education for all
Britain still has a good state education system with many outstanding teachers. However, it is clear that the traditional centralised system is no longer appropriate. Rather than bashing private schools for being the ‘preserve of the rich,’ it would be more useful to examine why they are so successful. All children, regardless of their social background, deserve a world-class education. This can only be achieved by giving all parents real choice and allowing competition to push up standards in all our schools.