Following up on Free Schools & Transparency

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My Guardian column this week explained why the current lack of transparency around Free Schools is unjustifiable. Several of the best US states have thoroughly transparent systems where the applications and school-granting process is publicly available and publicly consulted upon.

Opponents to transparency argue that making the Free School process more open would mean it getting knocked off course, but groups using cash paid in taxes by working people to inculcate those same people’s children during their limited educational time should at minimum be expected to stand their ground in a public hearing. Winning the right to that money and time means taking the heat, and explaining over and over again why you are planning what you are planning.

Concerns about transparency rippled through my conversations this week with New York-based education reformers. People looked genuinely concerned when they heard England has academised 60% of secondary schools in three years – faster than any US state has done over twenty years. They are bemused that Free School applications are shrouded in secrecy. They are mortified when they hear we have no clear guidelines on academy closures or take-overs. And these are New Yorkers – they do not frighten easily.

So far, 13 Free Schools have been inspected: 1 outstanding, 7 good, 4 need improvement and 1 inadequate.  The second cohorts of schools were allegedly subject to a more rigorous assessment, and so the feeling is that these schools will do better. Wouldn’t it be better if that rigorous assessment was also public, so that we can see the process is rigorous, rather than having no information about the decision-making process and waiting two years after a school opens before knowing if the deciders were laying their bets wisely.

“The man who can keep a secret may be wise, be he is not half as wise as the man with no secrets to keep” –E. W. Howe

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