The President of the Girls’ School Association, Gillian Low, writing in the TES this week issued a warning to the Conservatives about their plan to introduce up to 2,000 new schools. As well as the new schools, Ms. Low wrote, “The other schools must be able to continue to improve and not to fall off the bottom of the ladder.” In other words, with all the attention on new ‘parent-run’ schools, the Conservatives must not just ignore existing schools.
How do the Conservatives plan to do this when their whole policy is based on creating competition between schools (and a political need for the new schools to be ‘beacons of excellence’)? Their argument is that by introducing new schools to a certain area, existing schools will have to raise their game if they are to avoid an exodus of pupils (and therefore funding) to the new schools. Even the threat of new schools being opened should, according to the theory, put existing schools on high alert and encourage them to improve.
But what if, in reality, the opposite happens? If a school does lose pupils to a new school its ability to improve will be hampered as they will, according to the Tory policy of funding following the pupil, receive less funding whilst still needing to maintain buildings and pay teachers. With fewer resources and falling numbers of pupils at the school, more and more parents will withdraw their children until only those with the least aware or least supportive parents are left and, eventually, the school will “fall off the bottom of the ladder”, close and (most likely) be replaced by an Academy.
On the Andrew Marr show on Sunday morning Michael Gove argued that the financial costs of creating new schools could be met through efficiency savings. Marr was sceptical about this and pressed Gove on it to an extent. But what about the educational ‘cost’ to the pupils left in failing schools as their classmates are withdrawn around them? If, as is likely, engaged parents withdraw their children most quickly from a failing school, the students left behind will not only suffer from fewer financial resources but also lose the important benefit of peer-learning from those children who (given that they enjoy lots of parental support) are most likely to be well behaved and well motivated.
The Tories do pledge, in their draft education manifesto, that “any school that is in special measures for more than a year will be taken over immediately by a successful Academy provider.” Even if, however, an Academy that replaces a failing school is able to bring success quickly (and so far their ability to do so has been mixed) the education of pupils who remained in the failing school will have suffered greatly. If a school does need a ‘stimulus package’ of support, it is crucial that it receives it before parents begin to withdraw their children; if it comes too late the task of improving the school will, because the most engaged pupils will have left, be much, much more difficult. In the schools' market the Tories plan to create all schools should be ‘too big to fail.’