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.

22 Responses to “Gove’s ‘for-profit’ free schools lust overlooks warning signs from US”

  1. DavidG

    It’s interesting that a lot of the weaknesses picked out in the Stanford report in terms of US charter schools failing pupils who need more support are also weaknesses I’ve heard applied to the existing local grammar schools, particularly under the league table regime that has encouraged them to focus on scores, not pupils. Has the government found a way of reintroducing grammar schools by the back door?

  2. Alex Braithwaite

    RT @leftfootfwd: Gove’s ‘for-profit’ free schools lust overlooks warning signs from US

  3. Mr. Sensible

    Free Schools remain totally regressive for our education system.

  4. robert the crip

    Well so far we have seen three schools on TV each school had a about four children, one school had six all of which were Asian.

    If these schools are to be mixed free and open to everyone what is the difference then from a state school. Ok four teachers and six kids may well be a good ratio for the children but these school are going to receive money on the number of children. I also note they stated they had opened the school stating the summer holidays should be four weeks not six, which is not going to be a great success to the older children, of course if your trying to get schools to open so mothers can work then yes I suppose it will work.

    Boy we are living in a strange period, look out Victoria we are heading back.


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