The 15 new free schools approved by the government last week are an unforgivable wasted opportunity and the direct opposite of ‘levelling up’.
Nine of the 15 new schools will be elitist 16 to 19 year free schools. These new schools will be focused on selective and mostly academic level 3 provision. They are therefore explicitly an investment in provision for young people who have already achieved well at age 16. ‘Levelling up’ should be primarily about the young people who have fallen behind at age 16.
By increasing the number of selective schools and colleges that focus only on recruiting half of young people at age 16, we marginalise and undervalue the other half of our young people. And by institutionally separating those two halves from each other based on academic attainment, we are recreating at age 16 a system with the same fundamental flaws as grammar schools impose on 11-year-olds.
Moreover, we risk investing less and thinking less about those who don’t make the grade at age 16 and don’t enjoy the parental or other support to catch up.
This is already happening. In talking about the small number of young people who will access these new schools, ministers and media commentators seem totally uninterested in what we could or should be doing for young people who do not achieve five good GCSEs.
Education policy should instead be focused on directly and significantly improving investment, opportunities and results for the more than half of young people who will not benefit from new and elitist 16 to 19 free schools. In particular, post-16 education policy must create a system that works for all of our young people.
A quick win would be to ensure FE colleges benefit from the same VAT status as the new 16-to-19 free schools will enjoy (and already applies to schools and academies). There is no rational reason for this difference in treatment, which results in less funding to resource frontline teaching and support for young people from our most disadvantaged communities. The proportion of young people in FE colleges who stem from the most deprived communities is often double that in selective academic sixth forms.
We are at a critical stage in the development of our national 16-to-19 education system. We need to see real investment in the sector. This isn’t just a matter of equity for young people; it is also crucial to the governments’ agenda to deliver the skills the economy and employers need.
Every area now has a local skills improvement plan (LSIP) led by local employers. FE colleges are required by law to match their courses and curriculum to these LSIPs’ priorities. But these new free schools won’t be subject to the same legal requirement. They can, and probably will, completely ignore their LSIP.
In the places where they are established, their main impact will be to increase the choice of schools and colleges for young people who want level 3 academic study. This will increase competition between providers and eventually lead to the unplanned and chaotic failure and closure of other school sixth forms or college provisions. The overall impact will be felt worst by young people who do not immediately follow a level 3 academic programme.
National investment in education should carefully take account of the wider impact of changes to the structure and stability of the whole system. Recent decisions do not do this. These new schools will increase local competition for those who are already more advantaged and well served by the education system and put at risk the stability of FE colleges who provide for young people from all backgrounds and attainment levels.
Post-16 education planning and policy are dysfunctional. Local authorities continue to have the main legal responsibility for sufficiency of 16-to-19 education and training, but they have no formal role in the kind of decision making process that resulted in the investment in 15 new free schools.
It is a fundamental flaw that there is no effective local or national accountability or responsibility for creating a post-16 education system that has ‘sufficient suitable education and training provision for all young people’.
The long-term interests of young people will be better served by fixing that.