A quick thought on free schools

Friday, October 12th, 2012

I’ve just caught up with a very interesting Radio 4 documentary on “free schools”, which aired last night.

The piece prompted quite a few thoughts, but I was particularly taken by comments by, I think, Jeremy Rowe, the head of Sir John Leman school in Beccles, Suffolk, about the possible long-term impact of a new school – a “free school” – which opened in the town last month to make two secondaries there.

Mr Rowe’s concern was that although Beccles Free School has so far struggled for pupil numbers, in time it might take pupils away from Sir John Leman and that, in time, this might lead to serious disadvantages: specifically duplication of provision and, if I have remembered this correctly, the fact that Sir John Leman might no longer be able to operate, for example, courses in minority interest subjects.

This could lead to a situation where “there is less of the added value [his school currently provides] and you end up with two schools offering the same restricted diet”.

In other words, there were benefits to having pupils concentrated in one institution rather than split between two.

The counter-argument, put by supporters of free schools, is that competition between institutions, to use the standard and too-often-repeated cliché, forces each to “up their game”, or improve.

The to- and fro-of this is fairly routine in this debate. But what occurred to me is that the competition argument being used by free schools supporters seems to run directly counter to the argument used in much of the debate around healthcare.

There, a prevailing view – though often challenged, it has to be said, at a local level – is that sometimes hospitals need to close in order to focus specialist provision in single institutions. This is seen to be economically more efficient and also to promote the concept of centres of excellence. It also avoids duplication of services, I think the argument runs.

As I said, this argument seems to be well-balanced in the health sector, but the opposite of the prevailing view among current policy-makers in education.

If many people do, understandably, want to defend their local hospital from closure, I’m not aware of any argument that what we need to do, to improve health standards, is to open lots of new hospitals close to each other in order to force existing providers to “up their game”.

Someone might say I’m wrong there, and that this has been advocated.

But I guess the prevailing view would be that – to put it mildly – this would not be the best use of resources. You can argue,I guess, that schools are cheaper institutions than hospitals, but questions about the efficiency of the comparable project in the education sector will not go away, I feel.

The above represent just some very quick thoughts, but I would be fascinated to hear any responses.

6 Comments

  1. I have always struggled with the competition v ;planned provision dichotomy because, to me, both positions have weaknesses. Monopoly provision (however owned and paid for) tends to exploitation, high price and low quality. Competition can make the provider more responsive to price and quality signals from users/consumers. However, it also produces oversupply (if supply = demand there is no competition), supplier failures and a diversion of resource (and quite a lot of it) into the apparatus of competition (e.g. spend on marketing, cost of transactions). So I have trouble reconciling the assertion that competition leads to greater efficiency with the obvious fact that, on the way, the services are more expensive!

    We might not care about this when we are buying TVs, dry cleaning or holidays but we most surely do when the service is our children’s future or our health. Then, supplier failure has immediate and long term casualties.

    The real-world solutions to these dilemmas are somewhere between market and centrally planned provision and how well these work and how fairly the benefits are distributed lies in the fine detail. I think what winds many of us up is the inconsistency (hypocrisy,maybe) of the positions adopted by politicians. Thus we get the promotion of more competition in the provision of schooling but, apparently, less of it in the provision of exams.

  2. I think the major point of difference is that health outcomes depend heavily on the skill/resources of the doctors/hospital – what the patient thinks and feels is relatively unimportant. By contrast, how a child feels about their school is a hugely important factor in determining whether they will be a successful learner there. In a small school the relative importance of each pupil is greater, so two small schools could be better than one big if they each have a strong, positive ethos. But that’s a big ‘if’ and being small is no guarantee it will happen.

  3. Actually, I’m not sure that the differences between health and education agency are that great. The evidence suggests that health is more co-constructed than is commonly believed (cf the powerful and REAL placebo effect).

    What is certainly true is that teachers have failed to persuade the public and politicians that they have command of an arcane and opaque skill and knowledge set.which no-one else can understand. In reality there is less of this than meets the eye in doctoring and a lot more of it in education than popularly accepted

  4. Having recently analysed all peer-reviewed journal papers comparing charter schools and public schools in the states between 2007 and the present, I couldn’t find a single paper that supported the view that competition between schools driven by new school openings delivers any increased student outcomes. There is evidence that it makes other principals think more about their competition and be more strategic in what they are doing, but the evidence that this converts to a better education for students (or higher achievement) is entirely missing.

    One thing that is clearly demonstrated in several papers is that competition like this tends to increase segregation of ethnicity and classes. The view from the papers is that this increased segregation is not beneficial.

    The hospital example has long seemed an important one. It strikes me that if hospitals were not working we wouldn’t decide to create NHS 2.0, but only in places were people decide they will sponsor hospitals, and then only for the x% who live in those areas. But I was led to believe (and am still open to the idea) that competition has improved many other sectors. The main concern now is that the evidence for it happening in education is not as ambiguous as I first thought. The absence of solid evidence that competition drives up standards is quite remarkable.

  5. Interesting, thank you. From a practical point of view, centralisation of specialities in health tends to be for specialist functions only (cardiac units for example). It is done primarily to ensure better outcomes for patients (though not always perceived as such, for a number of reasons). And I agree, within healthcare itself there is a more mature debate on the expansion of specialist centres and its organisational implications.

    For me one of the key differences between health and education is that commissioning is more overt in healthcare. Even before the reduction of role for LEAs, there was I think less awareness in the public at large of school capacity planning, and less knowledge about how education is funded. So in general, in health, we define a need and then seek to commission enough service to meet that need. Yes there is a choice of provider for many routine services (cataract surgery for instance), but that’s within an overall capacity plan; it’s not choice for the sake of it.

    Free schools, by contrast, aim to provide choice in universal provision, and rarely enter specialist territory (I view the teaching of Latin as an extension of universal provision,not a specialism in itself!). There is, for me a fundamental flaw in using oversupply to increase choice and quality in education: the birthrate doesn’t rise in response to an increase in the number of school places. So the net result of opening free schools in areas where there are already enough school places is an increase in rhetoric and spin, and a significant increase in the cost of universal-level education due to duplication of places. If free schools were only used for properly specialist provision, the policy might look less wasteful and less divisive.

    As parents, our interactions with education are frequent, much less so with healthcare. Following on from Ed’s point, I think it’s not just our children’s views which are important, it’s how influenced we are as parents by the national and local view of our schools, and of late the rhetoric is consistently negative about secondary education, with very few exceptions. So it’s not surprising, faced with a mountain of negativity about something which is a necessary part of our daily lives, and not knowing the costs involved, that some people fear existing provision won’t deliver, and seek out an alternative. But to address this, we need proper debate, not one-sided rhetoric.

  6. I agree that there are parallels between education and healthcare provision and I am exploring this in my local area (SW London) as we move forward with Coalition reforms in these two highly political agendas. The big difference is that patients have little real say over their healthcare outcomes, whereas with a free school theoretically you can set one up as a group of parents and determine everything that goes on, assuming your Head has been recruited because he/she fully signs up to your vision. A bit like cloning really. Which of course is associated with sheep and the Nazis.

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