Katharine Birbalsingh’s free school

Food for thought in the TES, Observer and Telegraph.  First off, a piece on a storm brewing in Wandsworth over Katharine Birbalsingh’s planned secondary free school.  There’s a little local difficulty over the fact that the school will open in a Borough that has spare places in its secondary schools but not enough space in its primaries.  The Observer carried a piece headed “Katharine Birbalsingh criticised over ‘wasteful’ free school project”.

Now, as Toby Young points out, Birbalsingh is not wholly to blame for the fact the school has ended up in Wandworth.  She had originally planned to site the school in Lambeth, a Borough that does indeed lack secondary spaces.  Young says that the bid fell foul of opposition from “left wingers” who control the council.  As we’ve argued previously, Young is being disingenuous in assigning this debate a neat political divide: there are both left-wing supporters and right-wing detractors of academies and free schools.  Indeed, as Birbalsingh points out in her own blog, Labour MP Kate Hoey “is a big supporter of ours”.  But the point, that Birbalsingh tried to locate her school in an area in need of secondary places and couldn’t, stands.  She points out in her defence that it’s still located on the border of Wandsworth, Lambeth and Merton so will be more broadly accessible.

All that’s not to say, however, that the system actively encourages this kind of  behaviour.  The argument for free schools was never really to provide capacity but rather to promote innovation.  For what it’s worth, I’d certainly support Birbalsingh’s advocacy of mathematics over ICT lessons.  But privileging innovation over population-linked need does mean that schools are more likely to crop up in areas where they aren’t really needed.  It’s the availability of a skilled provider with good ideas, rather than need for school places in response to an increasing birth rate, that will increasingly drive the future allocation of education resources.  This is compounded by the fact that the road to establishing a new community school, where a local authority deems it necessary, is a long and torturous as all other options must be exhausted first.  The result, given the surge in primary numbers, will be authorities lagging behind demand and more bitter battles over scarce resources.  

What will the impact of all this on educational standards be?  The TES has a good piece on the Welsh education system which under-performs in comparison with England.  The freedom that academies and free schools have is mentioned approvingly by a headteacher interviewed as part of the piece.  Far more important than structures, however, seems to be the amount of money invested in education and expectations of standards.  The ever-sensible Dylan Wiliam of the IoE argues that’s “there’s probably not enough pressure on pupils and teachers in Wales, and too much in England”.  This is compounded by a shortfall of nearly £600 in per-pupil investment.  As Tony Blair had it, the important thing is standards – not structures.