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Dr Eamonn Butler: The autonomy and accountability of Free Schools will ensure they succeed

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Dr Eamonn Butler is director of the Adam Smith Institute.

Relax. The Free Schools idea is so right, so in tune with human nature and so powerful, that Britain’s new Free Schools will succeed. Despite Nick Clegg’s insistence that they can’t be profit-making, despite demands that they should face a quota system so they can’t select and get as many difficult kids as any other school, despite all the regulatory hurdles that campaigners and local authorities have put in their way – despite all this, they will still succeed.

How do I know this? Because there are now plenty of countries where schools are publicly funded but privately run, and there is a whole host of different regulations on the private providers. In many cases, as in the UK, ministers have imposed the regulations as a result of scare campaigns by educational statists who work in the state sector and just can’t believe that anyone else can do the job better. Personally, I would prefer it if politicians looked at the evidence rather than just pandered to scare tactics; but even with everything that has been ranged against them, the Free Schools will quickly prove their worth.

Take the selection point, where campaigners demand that Free Schools take a representative sample of the local population. Frankly, that means a lot of bureaucracy they could do without. But Free Schools don’t need to select to succeed. Around two-thirds of the schools in the Netherlands, that socialist paradise, are publicly financed but privately run. The parents can ‘select’ schools – and often do, preferring a particular religious approach, for example – but the schools themselves cannot. They are simply not allowed to exclude students. And all parents have a choice, not just the well-off. So this isn’t a system based on schools selecting the bright kids of rich parents, but a genuinely open one. And yet, after just a few years, kids in these privately-run schools in the Netherlands are a year ahead of those in the others, around 20-30 points on the OECD’s PISA educational score.

Or take the not-for-profit demand. Again, it’s unhelpful. The prospect of profit is a very effective way of drawing talent, resources and investment into a sector, and that is as true of schooling as any other business. In the Netherlands, competition is restricted to non-profit schools. But even so, the public-funding + private-provision formula still works.

The early studies of America’s Charter Schools – quite similar to Britain’s Free Schools programme – showed a mixed performance. But now the Charter Schools have found their feet. Many US Charter Schools are not allowed to select, or choose not to, or actively select pupils with special needs. Many of them were originally established by parents and teachers in poor, black or Hispanic inner-city areas because they believed the state education system was failing them.

As World Bank expert Harry Patrinos told a Policy Exchange audience last week, there is no selection in New York’s Harlem Children’s Zone, and most of its students are black, but the performance improvement is enough to reverse the traditional black-white differences in the US. Boston’s charter schools outperform public schools by a third of a standard deviation – which, to the uninitiated, is an absolutely huge amount – even though places are decided by lottery. And as Sweden, Ontario, Quebec and others have found, when there is competition about, even the existing state schools raise their game.

What makes the difference? It’s not more money – if you look across the international scale, there is no discernible relationship between a country’s spending and the performance of its state-school pupils. Most publicly funded and privately run schools get the same as their state competitors, or less.

No: it is school autonomy, allowing schools to evolve new ways of doing things. It is a traditional approach to reading. It is a ‘no excuses’ ethic, and even contracts between kids, parents, teachers and administrators. It is a longer school day.

It is also accountability – based not on state-sector box-ticking, but on good performance information to parents, and parents’ freedom to change schools if they think that is best for their child. It is about competition. And it is about human nature breaking through the tarmac of state control. However much the sceptics might try, they are never going to stop that.

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