Are free schools the answer?

by Anna Mandras

Every morning at 8:15 little people in uniforms of various colours gather at bus-stops – some still lost in sleep, others deep in thought – planning the day, or waiting patiently for the bus, hoping to get to school on time.

Mothers, fathers, friends and relatives take them to school while fellow commuters read, listen to music or talk on their mobiles. Going to school is an opportunity to see the world.

Westminster is one of the largest multicultural communities in London, and it has lots of decent schools. Alongside traditional schools, free schools have been created to – according to supporters – satisfy the needs of communities and promote equality and diversity.

The general public may have negative perceptions of free schools, but parents are often reported to support the initiative, with some free school mums and dads encouraging others to enroll their children at the same school.

However, speaking to mothers about their children’s performance at a recently-opened free school in London, I was left with an overall impression of disappointment. Parents felt the school had failed to deliver on promises made at the beginning of the year.

Despite encouragement and a supportive environment where children feel safe and motivated, a lack of communication, poor resources and challenges to delivering creative sessions have directly impacted on the children’s academic progress. A recent Ofsted report also identified issues of concern.

Photo by Jessica Mulley

In contrast, I spoke to a mother whose sons attend a highly prestigious, ‘non-free’ state school in Westminster, with an outstanding Ofsted report.

She said she was satisfied and happy to see her children reaching their potential and enjoying their education in a stimulating and motivating environment.

And even though it is not run on the ‘free school’ model, her husband still takes a very active role in school activities, including fundraising.

It’s seems that a school being ‘free’ does not necessarily mean it will be a cut above the rest. Running a successful school takes far more than enthusiasm of the teachers and staff.

Schools only become supportive and stimulating learning environments when they have properly trained staff, competitive equipment and resources and a good library. Good schools have a specialist special needs team, a decent playground and a fully equipped science lab.

And just as important as all of these is for teachers to work in close collaboration with communities and families.

It takes the whole community to raise a child.

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