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Education Matters: Geoff Barton is ‘unconvinced’ by free schools. What’s your view?

PUBLISHED: 18:43 19 March 2015 | UPDATED: 09:28 20 March 2015

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury.

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury.


Our Debating Society has a simple but compelling motto: ‘There’s a good argument for joining’.

After school every Friday you’ll find around 50 students eating cake, drinking tea and, yes, enjoying a massive argument about an issue of the day.

The debates might explore whether fox hunting should be legalised, whether the internet does more harm than good or whether we should welcome a new grammar school in every town.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to know that I like the cut-and-thrust of debating. Controversy is in my blood. But they may be more surprised to hear that King Edward VI School – a proud comprehensive in Bury St Edmunds – has (as Ofsted put it) ‘a national reputation’ for debating.

It’s an activity, after all, that was once a world dominated by private schools.

Last Saturday our team was at the Oxford Union for the national finals of the schools competition, and one of the students noticed a sign on the ring road. It read: ‘Barton Crematorium’. He asked, perhaps with a whiff of irony, ‘Do you own that?’

So I had to own up to the fact that whatever the extent of my educational interests, I hadn’t yet become the owner or even main shareholder of a crematorium.

Meanwhile, last week our Prime Minister announced the extension of the government’s flagship policy of free schools. Since then I have found myself thinking of that crematorium sign in that Oxford suburb.

Just to clarify: free schools are schools set up by local people – perhaps faith groups or merely disgruntled local citizens – who want to run a school of their own.

The idea seems to be to let people who don’t like the schools currently on offer in their area to set up their own. Of course they have to go through an application procedure, showing why their educational ambition is distinctive and necessary. If successful, they then get government funding to open a new school.

On paper this sounds intoxicatingly reasonable. But here in Suffolk, over the last four years we have learnt some important lessons about how the government’s lofty plans translate into practice.

For example, whatever the rhetoric, not all free schools have opened where there’s a demographic need. Too many, it seems, have been deliberately opened where there are already surplus school places.

So in the current age of austerity why is public money being given to pressure groups who manufacture wasteful extra places? Thus ‘free schools’ are actually nothing of the kind. There’s nothing free about them. They cost money and these costs are often considerable.

I also question the principle behind them. It may be that I’m not happy with the hospital near us; or the sewerage system. It may be that I think the local crematorium is facing in the wrong direction, or located in the wrong patch of Suffolk, or built in a woefully unaesthetic style.

So how far does my opinion as a citizen extend? If I don’t like the crematorium in my patch of Suffolk, should I be given state money – by which I mean your money – to open the Barton crematorium.

If not, why should I be given public money to open a free school? That, after all, is the essence of the free schools concept.

To my mind it’s an abdication of government’s responsibility to improve all schools, wherever they are and whoever they serve. Dishing out cash to some untried and untested local group is surely an admission that government no longer knows how to improve schools. They pass the buck instead.

That would be fine if the groups were taking the risk with their own money. If I want to open my own crematorium, then surely I should pay for it. Similarly, why should I be granted a wad of taxpayers’ money, diverted from other schools, to open my own school?

None of this is to say that we don’t need more great schools. Of course we do – just as we need good hospitals, sewage works and crematoria.

But that’s what we elect our politicians to ensure – high quality public services that make our lives better.

Which is why I am so unconvinced by the proposed expansion of free schools.

One Friday, I’ll see what the debating team thinks.

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