Friday, June 18, 2010

Free schools

Making the news is the government announcement regarding the creation of 'free' schools; allowing anyone to create a school, be funded directly from the government yet be out of the jurisdiction of the local school board.

For me this can go either way and it all depends on how it's implemented.

Funding is the first question, there's some talk of vouchers but that fails as soon as a parent wants to move their child to another school, the easiest solution is to fund the school each month according to how many pupils they have. There's the first problem it encourages cheating, claiming you have more children than you do and secondly it encourages schools to acquire pupils. With a for-profit motivation that means more pupils and less spending which is the problem we're trying to get away from.

The bonus on that is should a school start cramming children in the parents can simply choose to leave it and switch to another school, or better yet start their own.

The next problem arises in the set price per pupil the government may set, if you want the best teachers you need to pay for them and the base rate may not cover the cost. So schools may create a surcharge and we're back to a two-tier system whereby those who can afford it get a better education than those who can't.

There are ways around this, but it requires a break with the current traditional methods. At the moment if we imagine a school teaches five subjects (let's say Maths, Science, History, Geography, English) they employ at least five teachers one for each subject. Teacher 1 takes class 1 in the morning and class 2 in the afternoon, while teacher 2 takes class 3 and 4 and so on to whatever timetable is arranged.

With smaller classes the first break is the split lessons, those who recall getting their timetable and seeing double maths on a Friday afternoon will know what I mean. So let's change it either have an entire day devoted to one subject. How does that affect the teachers. Well School 1 with a single class has Maths on Monday, Science on Tuesday, etc. that means School 1 is only employed five teachers for one day each.

Now take five schools acting in a block, School 1 has Maths on Monday, School 2 has Maths on Tuesday etc. this means the teachers are still fully employed.

Now some lessons require particular equipment, our block of five could operate out of a single building and share costs; how is this different to a normal school? Each school is still separate and can teach to a different curriculum and/or concentrate on certain subjects more.

Better yet this allows for a third party to provide said specialist equipment. A company could build a 'school' filled only with lab equipment and rent it out as and when a school requires it. The school saves money in not having to fund it themselves and the company has saved money in the build purchase of equipment. Likewise it allows competition for better spec'ed labs to be built.

There are still problems, those with the money can still acquire a 'better' education than those without, but this form of competition should lessen the gap between them. However free enterprise also allows for monopolization. As happens when a supermarket comes into town the local schools may find that a bigger school has booked all the places at the 'science labs' to prevent the smaller schools to get a look in. Sure competition would see another science lab being built but that takes time in the meanwhile the children don't receive science lessons and the parents pull their kids out in favour of the supermarket school.

Another option comes from the science lab make-up in having specialist schools School 1 only teaches Maths School 2 only teaches Art. Parents sign their children up to multiple schools depending on what they want to learn. This means each school can have a fixed teacher-base and concentrate on obtaining the correct equipment for their subject.This would depend on how the funding is allocated.

This means it's the parents juggling timetables and not the schools

"We think with John's level of ability he should be in Tier 2, classes occur on Tuesday's or Thursdays"
"Well he's got Science on Thursday so it'll have to be Tuesday"

If too many Tier 2 students come in the school can hire more teachers to cover the classes.

All in all it could work, but the mental break with how schools are currently run has to be broken at the same time.


Orphi said...

Maybe instead of creating new ways for people to set up schools, the government should be concentrating on, I don't know, maybe making schools better? You know, so that there's no reason to set up a bunch of new ones in the first place? To me, if you think there's an advantage to creating a new type of school, what you're basically saying is that the existing kind doesn't work properly.

FlipC said...

Yes pretty much. The current system evolved out of something that is in fact similar to what they want to set-up now. It's less a new thing and more a return.

We already hear about those who lie and cheat to get into a different catchment area, because School A is better than School B. So either the task is to make every school equally good (which doesn't mean they'll be any good) or accept the fact that some people will get a better education than others simply due to their current location.

As it stands if you don't like the school your location provides your options are to pay to go to another school or opt for home schooling, neither of which are applicable if you're low on money and work all day.