Do free schools mean a freer education?

Academies are paid millions and are not controlled by LEAs so where does all the money go and are results reflecting investment? Hannah Smithson investigates

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A free education sounds idyllic, financially and ideologically and something which every child should be entitled to but since the introduction of free schools last year and with the number of academies on the increase around the country, concerns have been raised into the quality of education in these new schools, promising to better the lives of generations to come.

What makes academies and free schools different, is primarily the way they are run and funded. Academies are funded by central government and no longer controlled by Local Education Authorities (LEAs) but by staff, governors and parents.

Similarly, free schools were set up last year by Educational Secretary Michael Gove, to provide new schools in often under privaledged areas, educational opportuinities pioneered by parents, staff and local governors. Both are really in their infancy but it is time to reflect on whether they are working or not?

League tables

St. Aldhelm’s Academy in Poole was announced as the worst scoring school in the country this year as only 3% of pupils who left last summer achieved 5 A to C GCSE grades.

On arrival to the school, I was asked to sit in the foyer and wait to speak to principal Cheryl Heron. I had made an appointment and everything seemed to run to schedule in this school.

At exactly 12 noon I was met by Cheryls’ Personal Assistant Tracy, who I’d been emailing to arrange an interview and escorted through many key coded doors and pristine corridors to Cheryls office.

As I waited I couldn’t help feeling as though I was waiting to meet the Prime Minister rather than the head of a struggling academy. I sensed that perhaps this wasn’t the only media attention they’d had since the results came out and that they quite rightfully wanted to be professional yet wary about my presence and intentions as a journalist.

I assessed my surroundings and I would clearly not be alone interviewing Cheryl, as her trusty PA stood by. I was being monitored.

Finally, this very tall, well groomed figure emerged from her office and I stood up to shake her hand as she introduced herself as the Principal. If I wasn’t intimidated already I certainly was now, as she explained she was a keen basketball player and I could see why from her towering shadow.

She sat down her body language open yet protective and began to explain to me the academies situation.

“What people have to understand is we only opened in September 2010 so our first year 11 results were with a group of year 11s we only had for eight months and although we did everything within our power we only achieved three percent five A to C’s in English and Maths.”

“We have pressure on us to do better which we will do – that’s why we’ve become a sponsored Academy but everything takes time, it doesn’t happen overnight.”

Cheryls point was to not criticise the academy for the results that were achieved last year under this new status as the school was still working under an old system, with the same curriculum and old classrooms, waiting for an £11 million renovation to take place in August.

Money, money money

So in spite of the different way academies are funded, is it a case of pouring money into academies and free schools to help them recover or upgrade their status to academies if they are doing well. Does this create unfair competition between state schools and new academies as other colleges may not have the same budget to compete with the education an academy can offer children?

Time and co-operation

Academies and free schools are still subject to Ofsted inspections and so can still be held to account.

Attendance and standards of behaviour have both improved remarkably since St. Aldhelm’s became an academy, according to a recent Ofsted report and David Ball, Vice Chair of Governors at St. Aldhelm’s and head of academic development at Bournemouth University, said: “The principal and staff at St. Aldhelm’s are dedicated and fully committed to improving the educational attainment at all levels of young people in the community.

Ball believes there are strategies in place to improve achievement and has noticed a difference in the attitudes of the young people since the school became an academy. He said: “They take pride in the academy and recognise the value of education.”

The borough of Poole said it had no involvement in the running of the school since it became an academy, which controls it’s own budget and curriculum, and that the responsibility lay with the school’s private sponsors.

Ball added: “As a co-sponsor, the university fully supports, and has a complete confidence in the principal and her staff. The proof will be seen in future years as new cohorts move through the academy, benefit from its pupil centered educational ethos and fulfil their potential.”

Critics of academies question their ethos and ‘innovative’ teaching methods, asking whether they are working or eroding traditional teaching disciplines and replacing core subjects with vocational qualifications. Principal Heron explained that there will be a large focus on vocational studies at St. Aldhelm’s and her freedom with the curriculum allows this.

“I have to do English and Maths, but then I can do whatever I want and there is more emphasis placed on vocational qualifications and apprenticeships nowadays.”

The Wolf report seems to put a spanner in the works however as professor Wolf recommended last year that only some vocational qualifications should count towards GCSE league tables whilst criticising that many vocational qualifications were not leading to higher education or a job for graduating pupils. How will St. Aldhelm’s fair in future years in the league tables?

Success stories

Some better established academies are however coming out on top. The Bishop of Winchester Academy on Mallard Road, was five years ago a school with special measures and is now facing being over subscribed for the coming September cohort 2012-13.

Hayleigh Edwards, Key stage 4 progress leader at the academy believes academies can be beneficial. She said: “Extra funding has been an enormous help, particularly for KS4 where I am able to reward trips and put incentives in place. Without the additional budget, I would struggle to do this.”

Other plans to improve Bournemouth include a £10million  investment to extend and refurbish The Bourne Academy.

Barry Goldbart, Cabinet member for Education and Childrens services, said: “Bournemouth has been very fortunate in receiving such a large investment for two of our academies.

“Academies are a good thing and a trend that I think will continue.”

He added: “The only loss is of the high quality officers within the council who deal with education and with losing them we lose the experience to make those tough decisions.”

The coalition government wants schools considered ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted to convert to academies. It also wants those successful schools to mentor others in the areas that are more disadvantaged.

Free school plans

Plans to open a free school in Bournemouth are going ahead for September 2012. The new school, called Parkfield school will be offering a alternative education to the children of Bouremouth and Poole.

It will be offering an international curriculum and combining the Montessori method into the classroom which follows a ‘freedom within limits’ ethos.

The new headteacher could not be contacted for comment.

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About hannahsmithson

Hi I'm Hannah. I've just graduated from Bournemouth University with a first class honors in Multimedia Journalism and am about to adventure off to the other side of the world to work in the Falkland Islands for FITV. I am excited about my future prospects in Journalism and here is my blog where I document most of my experiences. Please get in touch if you want to chat...

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