Letters: Free schools - successes here, doubts in Sweden

These letters appear in the Tuesday 29th April edition of the Independent



It is not true that any free schools are “empty” (“Scandal of the empty free schools”, 24 April). Less than three years after the first opened, 24,000 pupils are attending free schools and most are proving wildly popular with parents.

For this September, free schools are attracting an average of almost three applications per place. It is not unusual for a school to have spare places; only 20 per cent of state schools are entirely full.

The story was deeply wrong to claim that the figures are based on “new research”. In fact they are taken from a National Audit Office report in December last year. That report made clear that free schools fill more places the longer they are open and that seven in 10 free school places are in areas with a shortage.

The story also misinformed your readers by suggesting that free schools have diverted money from areas facing a shortage. The DfE is spending three times as much on addressing the shortage of places across the school system as we are investing in free schools – 28 per cent of the department’s capital budget compared to 8 per cent. Our investment has already led to the creation of 260,000 places where they are needed, with many thousands more in the pipeline.

Elizabeth Truss, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, Department for Education, London SW1

Richard Garner is right to highlight “the scandal of the empty free schools” and the cost in terms of much-needed places elsewhere.

Free schools, rather than addressing the need for more parental choice, are often disruptive to local provision and in some cases are little more than vanity projects for interest groups. Ministers have failed to address the lack of suitable premises in catchments where places are needed, the main justification for the programme at inception. Few of those now established will be sustainable as standalone schools and many will merge with academy chains in the absence of local authority support.

While free schools once offered hope for change, ministers and civil servants have become bogged down in the mire of ideology that pervades our education system.

Neil Roskilly, Chief Executive, The Independent Schools Association, Saffron Walden, Essex

Michael Gove’s enthusiasm for free schools seems to have stemmed from what he heard about the Swedish experience. But perhaps he heard selectively.

Stockholm University monitored the experience of introducing such schools in Sweden, and initially reported that the arrival of such a school in an area had a beneficial effect.

Its 2009 report, however, showed that by that time the uplift was no longer apparent.

Swedes are currently greatly concerned to see a decline in their overall educational achievement standards, in contrast to the highly-regarded standards of the past. Numbers of people feel that there is a connection between the lower standards and the growth of the free school movement.

There has also been trouble with bankruptcies in free-school groups, resulting in sudden demands for the state education authorities to pick up the pieces and find room for sometimes large numbers of abandoned pupils.

During a visit earlier this month, I noted the results of a survey showing the extent to which school teachers were properly trained.

In the Stockholm area, the 19 worst schools were all free schools. Seven of those had fewer than 50 per cent of trained teachers, and in one free school little more than a quarter of the teachers were trained.

I hope Mr Gove is tracking all this, and wonder why, other than dogma, he doesn’t take a leaf out of the very successful Finnish book.

John Tippler, Spalding, Lincolnshire

Helping small firms to get bigger

Chris Blackhurst’s column of 23 April makes a timely intervention on the issue of how we finance small companies and help them become large ones. Unfortunately he is wrong to point the finger at private equity and venture capital, which are in fact, a significant part of the solution.

He says that all that’s talked about among venture capitalists is the importance of an “exit”. It is only a shame that he didn’t speak to more BVCA members. They are long-term investors of typically 10 years or more in small, high-risk high-growth companies. What they talk about is the importance of raising enough capital to be able to support these companies, so they don’t have to make an early exit to a US trade buyer and instead can receive many more funding rounds till they are finally ready to list.

What we need to focus on is how we can encourage more institutional investors to commit capital to the venture funds investing in UK SMEs. This is how we can help small companies become large ones. Giving businesses a tax-free savings account might help but it won’t solve the problem Mr Blackhurst has identified.

Tim Hames, Director General, British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association (BVCA), London WC2

A world of minorities

So the Cornish are now an official minority, whatever that might mean in practice. Where does that leave the Cockneys, the Men of Kent, the Brummies, the Scousers, and the Geordies? Before we know where we are we shall be having referendums for every part of the country, as we can all delve into history and make a case for our individual claim to a specific identity.

Roll on the day when we all learn to live together and realise that we are all human beings.

Bill Fletcher, Cirencester, Gloucestershire

I don’t wish to be difficult, but what exactly is the “Cornish way of life” which everyone seems so anxious to protect, through the granting of minority status to Cornwall? Don’t Cornish people go to Tesco, walk the dog, watch Take Me Out and play on Xbox like the rest of us?

Are they doing something secretly Cornish that those of us up the road in Dorset, for example, can barely imagine?

Helen Clutton, Dorchester, Dorset

A doctor writes, in Latin

Howard Jacobson (26 April) refers to a friend who presented to his doctor terrified by the presence of white spots on his scrotum and was disappointed that the GP could not produce a diagnosis.

So would I, as a retired GP, have been. The great secret of medicine is that all you have to do is translate the symptoms into either Greek or Latin and the patient immediately goes away satisfied. Thus, the patient complaining of severe pain in the rectum has got proctalgia, the patient with a left sided headache has migraine (hemicrania) and if you have got white spots on your scrotum you have got  acne alba scrotorum. It’s as simple as that.

Dr Nick Maurice, Marlborough, Wiltshire

Blair’s rejection of democracy

It is little surprise that Tony Blair is still incapable of accepting that he has done more to foster Islamic extremism than any other British politician.

However, his support for the Egyptian military in his Bloomberg speech is staggering. They overthrew a freely elected democratic government. What would Blair have thought if the British Army had rebelled against his illegal invasion of Iraq and removed him as Prime Minister, then imprisoning him and murdering his supporters?

Peter Berman, Wiveliscombe, Somerset

Educated for unemployment

Much is being made of the Ukip claim that immigrants are taking low-paid jobs. No one seems to focus on the biggest problem: our education system.

The policy of increasing the number of students going on to university has led to a focus on exam grades and league tables. University study has never been the correct road for all, but we seem to have forgotten about encouraging less academic students to take other paths. We now have a lost generation of young people feeling failures because no one has made enough of their importance in the workplace. Other European countries and beyond have not made this mistake; hence the immigrants queueing up to work in this country.

Valerie Morgan, Leigh on Sea, Essex

Don’t give in to classroom trolls

Martin Murray (letter, 22 April) suggests that teachers should refrain from using social media in order to avoid abuse and harassment from their pupils. So the victims should change their behaviour and lifestyles in order to escape the irresponsibility and nastiness of bullies and delinquents? What signal does that send to the pupils involved?

For goodness sake, get a grip. Punish the pupils (or their couldn’t care-less-what-my-kids-are-doing parents) who are using social media to denigrate and insult their teachers.

Pete Dorey, Bath

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