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.