SKETCH: Bottom-up Free School Policy in Front of PAC

Time and again Mr Wormall (sic) told the Public Accounts committee: Free Schools is a bottom up policy.

I’m old school but that seemed a little – what’s the word they use – regressive. It must explain why Free School discipline is better than in the maintained sector. Minutely-specified uniforms, strict grammar, masters of Latin prowling the aisles between the desks with their long ferrules, bottoms up on their barked command.

Unless it’s a bottom-up policy which means that discipline is rather worse around Free Schools. The local initiatives, the inspirational factors, odd conditions, the innovations – they all add to a creative ferment in which centrally-dictated targets and systems have no large place. Or so the civil servants maintained. There are no hard and fast systems. There is no algorithm, one said. That’s what happens in a bottom-up situation.

Top down bad, bottom up good. Though in my experience, the one – enough.

What a gruelling session. And so long! There were useful facts, good arguments, but it was all over the place and the Guardian revelations about payments were hardly discussed except in an appendix at the end.

Here’s one piece of evidence.

There was an application for a school that started in Slough and finished up in Stoke Poges. Big project for 850 pupils but only eight turned up for school. The local opposition: enormous. It was a Sikh faith school.

In summary it’s startling, but more startling was how the information came out in dribs and drabs. The civil servants responsible were saying, “Can I put that in context” and “Can I write to you about that?” and “We will reflect on your views”, and “I don’t have the answer to that”.

The committee’s information came out piecemeal. Uncoordinated. Bits from newspapers, reports, local anecdote, text messages from their researchers, no doubt.

The financial civil servant was asked of the scandal-hit King’s Science school that was given £10m for its premises. “Who owns the building?”

Pause. Mr Lauener, Mr Finance answered: “The Trust?” Another pause. “Gosh, I wonder if I ought to check that.”

That’s an idea. Do check that.

Ian Swales said the school buildings had been bought with money provided by this civil servant and then passed into the ownership of a company owned by the chair of the Governors. And after the characteristic fumbling and faffing, Mrs Hodge observed that “the school Trust will be paying rent to that company!”

Very shocking but in the Guardian. We weren’t any further ahead.

Free Schools create a lot of bottom-up emotion. We could do with a fact book about them – there were 191 cases of fraud from maintained schools, for instance. Property in in Bradford can be had for £2.50 a square foot rather than £15. How many Free Schools are in special measures compared with LEA schools. If you know of one succinct source for this please send a link.

The statistics can be argued either way by clever statisticians but Stewart Jackson put it best by putting it in perspective.

“People are looking at it down the wrong end of the telescope. There are thousands of LEA schools guilty of inappropriate conduct, corruption and very poor results.” These scandals, he said of the three or four schools in trouble, “didn’t start with Free Schools.”

This committee needs more money, more personnel, more research, more briefing power, more clerking, more structure. They work outrageously hard, that is clearly a fact. The cost of this sort of politics needs to go up.

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