Gove’s ‘for-profit’ free schools lust overlooks warning signs from US

Michael Gove’s lack of concern that free schools may be operated by for-profit companies indicates his willingness to overlook the warning signs from the US.

By Amelia Peterson

This weekend Rachel Wolf, of the New School Network, while contributing to a discussion in The Observer, referred to US charter schools as “the model for free schools”. The line is an old one, but it is somewhat surprising the free school movement has not sought to distance itself from its origins.

The US has seen a considerable backlash against charter schools in the past couple of years, based around research findings such as that from a major 2009 Stanford University study (pdf) of charters, which showed only 17% perform better than neighbouring public schools.

More worrying is that this is despite the apparent cherry-picking of pupils, by weeding out weak students along the way.

In a number of KIPP schools, the largest chain, or ‘network’, of charter schools, whose representatives were invited to the launch of the free school movement in the UK, rates of attrition between fifth and eighth grade are as high as 60 per cent.

Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Privatization in Education Study of Student Characteristics, Attrition, and School Finance (pdf) earlier this year concluded that patterns of attrition in KIPP schools were not in line with usual drop-out rates in high poverty areas, and show the schools failing, or pushing out, students who do not improve performance.

These concerns have been around for some time, and the fact that Ms Wolf highlights the ties to American models, rather than Scandinavian free schools, is a sign of the kind of institutions our new free schools are expected to be: more in keeping with the long hours, smart uniforms and strict discipline of the KIPP schools than the empowered teachers, inventive curriculum and strong community relationships of, for example, top Danish free school Bordings Friskole.

The news that education secretary Michael Gove would have no qualms allowing free schools to be operated by for-profit companies indicates his willingness to overlook the warning signs from the US of the insidious practices that breed when ‘chains’ of schools – even if nominally run by not-for-profit companies like KIPP – have their corporate reputation staked on improving students’ test scores.

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