Three things puzzle me about free schools:
• Why are they any more free than other state funded schools?
• Why has the government embarked on a scheme which inevitably creates an eduction system with more places than pupils in a time of austerity? Surely, the money could be better spent on creating jobs for young people when they leave school.
• Why does a government apparently committed to “localism” centralise the approval and funding of these schools in Whitehall? If you want to know who is boss, just follow the money.
And another puzzle. Suffolk blogger James Hargrave has been scraping away to discover why the Seckford Foundation, whose main business is Woodbridge School (Fees: £13,524 or £24,150 for boarders), is behind plans for four free schools in the county.
Today he has a post headed Free Schools project to “rescue” private education. He repeats part of an earlier post where he revealed Woodbridge School had made a loss of £2 million over the last six years. He quotes this from the 2010 annual report:
The net loss for the year after tax and realised losses on investment assets is £543,610 (2009: £244,835) this reflects the fall in income as a result of the reduced numbers in the school; down from 983 in 2009 to 929 in 2010.
He has also looked at the role of Melanie Tucker — who runs MTM Consulting which works in education at Southwold, just up the coast from Woodbridge — one of the proposers of a Beccles Free School.
Mrs Tucker has given her services to the Beccles project for free but it is not unreasonable to assume that the Seckford people are aware of her wider work. And this may explain why they are so keen on establishing a chain of free schools.
An article on the MTM website which looks at the impact of free schools on independent schools. It points to its research showing that selective state schools attract pupils away from independents. And says:
We asked our survey respondents to judge whether the Conservatives’ plans for free schools would be implemented and attract pupils away from independent schools. 39% felt it unlikely while 36% thought it likely. We would side with those who think it likely, and in particular the smaller minority who believe there is significant potential for independent schools to lose out to free schools.
In quantifying this, our estimate is that “if the grammar schools are a guide, then there could be a reduction of about a third of pupil numbers over a period of 20-30 years”.
So the already loss-making Woodbridge School (the foundation has enough money to cope with this for years) is faced with the loss of up to a third of its pupils if they believe MTM consulting.
Establishing free schools, funded by the Government, looks like a very sensible strategy for coping with a main business in decline. Whether it is so sensible for the taxpayers and people of Suffolk is another matter.
The other three Seckford-backed free schools are at Stoke by Nayland,Saxmundham and Ixworth.