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BCTF Information Services—Research & Reports

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Free Schools

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Last week, a Province blog post by Katharine Hamer raised the issue of free schools, an education model that has recently been introduced in England, and suggested that such a model in British Columbia could solve BC’s “education crisis.” (More on that the so-called "crisis" later in this post.)

England's coalition government has decided to allow groups of interested people – including parents, charities, universities, businesses, teachers, or educational groups – to apply to establish their own schools. According to the Department for Education, these schools are “non-profit making, independent, state-funded schools. There is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. They are not defined by size or location: there is not a single type of Free School or a single reason for setting them up.”

The ostensible unifying factor is that all of the schools are set up in response to local demand for more school choice, and for schools that reflect the needs and desires of local communities. The first 24 free schools opened in England this past September.

In developing this idea, the coalition government looked to two specific models: the free school movement in Sweden, and charter schools in the United States (in particular, the Knowledge is Power Program). Like US charter schools, free schools receive public funding but do not have to conform to the strictures that normal public schools must adhere to. They are largely free to determine their curriculum, they do not have to report to local education authorities (which perform similar functions as school boards do here), they can set their own pay and conditions for staff without having to worry about collective agreements, and they are able to hire teachers who do not actually have teaching credentials. The Department for Education argues that charter schools in the US have “shown how particular schools with these freedoms, coupled with inspirational teachers and leaders, can have a huge impact on academic performance and the numbers of pupils staying on in education.”

However, not everyone is altogether certain that US charter schools have been an unqualified success story. Research has shown that their effectiveness has been mixed, at best. While some charter schools have undoubtedly served some students (including minority and at-risk students) extremely well, some regular public schools have done the same; and some charter schools perform no better - or, indeed, worse – than their regular public school counterparts. A recent Answer Sheet blog post explores the research on charter schools:

Charter schools do exist in Canada, but only in the province of Alberta. In an informational brochure on the subject, the Alberta Teachers’ Association argues that

“the establishment of charter schools has meant that neighbourhood schools are left with less funding to educate higher-risk, harder-to-teach, higher-cost students. By encouraging the formation of charter schools, governments divert funding away from the public education system. Establishing charter schools allows governments to cater to the demands of narrowly focused, highly vocal, special interest groups. In the end, charter schools provide governments with an excuse to avoid implementing meaningful reforms that would enhance the quality of learning for the broader community.”

Swedish free schools have not been exempt from scrutiny, either. Unlike free schools in England, Swedish free schools are allowed to operate on a for-profit basis. According to a recent article in The Guardian, SNS, a business-funded Swedish think tank, has released a report that counters its typical pro-market viewpoints by arguing that the privately-operated free schools have “increased segregation and may not have improved educational standards at all.”

The Swedish minister of education, Jan Björkland, is planning to launch a parliamentary inquiry into free schools and school competition. He is quoted in the Guardian article as saying, “Loopholes in the legislation have meant that free schools can elect not to have a library, student counselling and school nurses.” Furthermore, “as they get just as much money as the municipal schools, the owners have been able to withdraw the surplus.” Perhaps most tellingly, the author of the SNS report says that although many municipal schools in Sweden are “horrendously bad,” “the difference between the free schools and the municipal schools is that the free schools actually have a profit incentive to reduce quality.”

(The SNS report is available here; however, it is only available in Swedish. Google Translate might come in handy. The Vlachos section begins on page 66.)

Other questions have been raised about Swedish free schools. In April 2010, the Times Educational Supplement reported that Ann-Christin Larsson, a senior officer with the teachers’ union Laraforbundet, said that the increased school competition created by free schools quashed the incentive to come up with new pedagogical ideas, and that free schools also increased segregation, as students in free schools tend to come from wealthier, better-educated families.

Recent research from Rebecca Allen, a Senior Lecturer at London University’s Institute of Education, found that Sweden “has fewer reasons to be concerned that a free school system will produce greater school stratification since the country’s lower levels of income and skill inequalities mean there is far less need for parents to choose schools based on social composition.” However, she also found that free schools have so far failed to transform educational attainment in Sweden.

In the UK, concerns about free schools have been articulated by the various teachers’ unions there. From the National Union of Teachers (NUT):

"The NUT opposes Free schools. We believe it is wrong that state funding should be given to small groups of individuals to run schools that are unaccountable to their local communities. In Sweden, where the Free Schools policy originated, three quarters of Free Schools are run by profit-making companies and there is clear evidence that they have resulted in segregation. The evidence on US charter schools is no better. We believe that Free Schools:

- are an attack on teachers' professional status

- will undermine national pay and conditions for teachers;

- will undermine local authorities;

- will break up common admission arrangements;

- will damage local democratic planning of school places;

- will redirect hundreds of millions of pounds that would be better spent on supporting existing schools."

Many see free schools as a sign of creeping school privatization. While they cannot be run for-profit in England (as they are in Sweden), their day-to-day operations can be delegated to for-profit companies, like Swedish free school chains Kunskapsskollan and Internationella Engelska Skolan.

Last week, The Guardian reported that the new free schools in England are “failing to take their fair proportion of pupils from low-income homes, when compared with neighbouring schools,” in spite of the government’s claim that free schools empower working-class families.

More on free schools from UK teachers' unions:

An organization called the Anti Academies Alliance has also outlined an argument against free schools:

Incidentally, the use of the word “crisis” in the title of Hamer's blog post ought to raise a few eyebrows. Many observers of BC’s education system might be surprised to hear that we face an education crisis. Recent PISA rankings put Canada near the top of the pack internationally, and BC students fare well compared to students in other provinces across the country. A Conference Board of Canada report card also recently ranked Canada second in education out of seventeen peer nations. Furthermore, a 2010 Statistics Canada report finds that Canada is one of the few PISA countries that demonstrate both high performance and high equity; its overall scores are high while the gaps between the highest and lowest performing students are low, indicating a high level of equity in educational outcomes. Canada is clearly no slouch when it comes to delivering a solid education to its students. In the introduction to BC’s new Education Plan, Minister of Education George Abbott writes,

“We’re starting from a strong position: motivated and talented students, outstanding teachers, committed parents, skilled administrators and dedicated education partners. We are also fortunate to live in a province that values education and gives young people opportunities to excel.”

The question remains – why should anyone in British Columbia be looking to the US, the UK, or Sweden for educational models? Canada consistently out-ranks these countries in international measures of educational success. None of this is to say that the education system in BC is perfect, or that it cannot be improved - but claims of a “crisis” in BC education seem overblown, to say the very least.

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