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Problems with free schools are a symptom of wider failings in the education system, and must be taken seriously

Freedom from local council bureaucracy has generally allowed a better cohort of headteachers to run their schools more effectively

Thursday 08 May 2014 20:49 BST

Sometimes it seems as if Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, set up his free-schools programme purely to distract attention from his main objective – to turn all schools in England into academies. If so, the ploy is working brilliantly. Today’s report from the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) will attract much attention for its criticism of the failures of accountability in a number of free schools.

Mr Gove’s ambition – that the vast majority of secondary schools will be academies by the time of the general election – has already been realised, with surprisingly little finger-wagging from Margaret Hodge, the fierce guardian of taxpayers’ interests who chairs the PAC. Although many teachers and political activists remain opposed to academies, the model has become the norm in English secondary education.

Mostly, this is a good thing. Freedom from local council bureaucracy has generally allowed a better cohort of headteachers to run their schools more effectively, and academies have helped to transform the ethos, discipline and expectations of pupils in areas that had previously been written off.

That said, Ms Hodge’s criticisms of free schools are important. Free schools are simply academies that have not taken over an existing school. If there are failings in the governance of free schools, they are likely to affect academies too. Ms Hodge makes the good point that the failings at Al-Madinah School in Derby and the Kings Science Academy in Bradford were brought to light by whistleblowers. Central government oversight is plainly not working as well as it should. This means that the reforms begun by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools, need to be accelerated, so that Ofsted, the education watchdog, is more constantly in touch with all schools rather than descending occasionally from on high.

As might be expected, Ms Hodge’s criticisms focus on financial accountability. That this is a problem, and not just in free schools, was underlined by the report yesterday that Sir Greg Martin, a primary academy head, is on a pay package worth £230,000 a year.

Where Ms Hodge’s committee is on weaker ground is in its complaint that free schools are not being set up in areas of greatest need. In fact, the committee’s own figures show that most free primary schools are being set up in such areas – the supposed mismatch is in secondary schools. But the purpose of free schools was not to meet demand for places. It was to give new providers the chance to set up schools to provide choice. In any case, crude measures of surpluses or shortages of school places take no account of the quality of those places. If a good free school opens in an area where there is a surplus of places at underperforming schools, that is progress.

The foreseeable expansion of pupil numbers gives local councils the chance at last to redeem their strategic role in planning for change, encouraging the best schools to expand. However, while there was a case for preventing councils from setting up new schools to ensure that they did not choke off the new-born free schools movement, we may well have reached the point where that ban should be lifted.

School autonomy has been a success, and Mr Gove should learn from Ms Hodge’s report further to toughen inspection and audit to ensure that it continues to be so.

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