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Six Predictable Failures Of Free Schools – Part 3

One problem of starting a new school is that, initially, it will be small.  Most Free Schoolers are excited by this telling me, “it makes things easier to control”.  While that view is somewhat true, small schools also have a persistent problem – everyone knows the order staff were selected to work in the setting.

Knowing who was selected first, then second, and third might not sound particularly controversial but it can breed a sense of entitlement.  For example, as extra year groups join the school for more Heads of Year are needed.  Knowing the order of selection often means earlier members feel they have more ‘right’ to promotion than newer staff members.  Equally, ‘core members’ (as the founders often think of themselves) tend to want their views listened to more seriously than those of newer staff, as they ‘understand’ the school more readily.  Being aware of the politics involved and balancing these pressures will be vital to ensuring success.  Where new, and existing schools, have allowed internal personal conflicts to transfer teachers’ energy from the classroom to the staffroom, those schools spiral into decline.

Conflict tends to occur most when the goals of the school are not clear.  In several of his books on Charter Schools (US version of Free Schools) Seymour Sarason talks about one of the most successful new settings of all time – the institute in America who worked to discover the Atomic bomb.  Sarason argues that the clarity of the goal – learning to harness the energy of split atoms– meant everyone focused on the same thing.  Though personal arguments sometimes flared, it was easy to quell frustration by focusing everyone back on the task of atom splitting.  If only the aims of all schools were so clear Sarason believes many fewer would fail.

Many Free Schoolers think their goal is simple.  Many have said to me they will: “Help all pupils learn as best they can”.  Yet, this phrase means wildly different things across teachers and leaders.  Some say success of this can be measured through GCSE scores, others prefer well-being scores and some even say it should not be measured at all.  There are also disagreements about whether or not learners should be forced into being their ‘best’ regardless of consequence to the physical or mental exhaustion.  Making clear goals is therefore a difficult but crucial task.

As discussed yesterday, Free Schools will constantly need to justify their position in the school marketplace because their existent makes schooling a competitive environment. Having a clear goal will therefore become even more important, as your marketing will need to be consistent. Furthermore, once the goal is decided upon it should be used for stopping further conflicts.  When promotions become an issue, senior management should be guided only by what will help achieve the goal and this should be made clear to staff from the outset. Being ‘first on the scene’ cannot be a guarantee for future promotion, such rewards should be reserved for those who most help the school progress towards the agreed goal.

Sarason also discusses that new settings usually bring together colleagues who have enjoyed working together in the past and who believe working collaboratively in a new environment would bring about great results.  Of the three teachers I have spoken with currently planning Free Schools, all have mentioned that they are working with “friends” or “other excellent colleagues”.  Sadly, past relationships do not predict how well you will fare in a new context.  Given that most teachers finish a job ion one school before going straight into another school means there is little time for each of these ‘excellent teachers’ to get to know one another.  Although in previous contexts everyone was excellent, misunderstandings can be frequent at the start if there is no adequate time for induction and recalibration.  Such misunderstandings are often the building block for long-term resentments.

Equally, individuals will change in character over time. The ‘fantastic’ Head of English you employ may face unexpected traumatic circumstances at home leaving her unable to give as much commitment as you require.  As a Head you may have promised your community that all staff will put in 100% of effort to support their child, but if someone’s capacity is only 80%, what do you do?  Especially if you know that work is the only stable and enjoyable part of this teacher’s life, your friendship will be tested sharply.   It is easy to believe we will always ‘do the right thing’, but the reality is quite different when faced with a friend who gave up their previous job to help you begin your risky Free School venture and is now facing enormous turbulence at home.

Of course, all schools face these difficulties.  And this is entirely my point.  When setting up a new school many think the problems of ‘old schools’ won’t follow them.  They will, and on top of that you will need to maintain a ‘perfect veneer’ to prove your place in the local marketplace because you will have created a competitive market.

So, what can be done? Having a clear goal from which you make value-based decisions is key to ensuring your long-term stability.  Remain flexible about staffing and try to avoid making extraordinary promises about the commitment your school will give.  Remember, if another school nearby isn’t already doing what you wish to deliver, there’s probably a good reason.  This doesn’t mean you won’t do things better, but recognise any pressures your promises will put on funding and staff capability and build in some slack.  This isn’t “wimping out on delivering excellence to the kids”, it is about making a sustainable service that won’t fall apart 3 years into a child’s education.

Key Recommendations

  • Be clear about your goal for the school and ideally base it on a local problem
  • All founding members should be aware that promotion will be based on achieving goals for the school and not the order in which people are recruited
  • Give people adequate time to get to know each other before beginning the school.  You will need at least one week with all staff working, in the new school building, before the students arrive.
  • Resist the push to ‘over-commit’ your staff’s time



** This series of blogs was the first step in developing “The 6 Predictable Failures of Free Schools… and how to avoid them.” A short book by Laura McInerney intended as a handbook to Free School founders and those interested in the topic. It is due to be published by L.K.M Consulting in mid February 2011. For more information email [email protected]  **

Tomorrow:  The final blog looks at the practical issue of time and resources, and why so many Free Schools fail to appreciate just how scarce these items truly are.

One comment

  1. Avatar
    Charlotte Mooney says:

    An interesting blog post and a must-read for anyone considering setting up a new school!

    I’ve encountered first-hand the problems of working in a new, small, independent school. Whilst the informal friendly atmosphere, very small class sizes, and small homely building were very appealing to parents, pupils, and new teachers, the size of the school contributed to a lot of its problems.
    Hiring staff and managing a staff budget is difficult in a small school. Hiring a class teacher to teach a group of 5 pupils is a lot less cost-effective than hiring a teacher to teach 20 pupils. If funding is per pupil, as it was in my school, then the school will struggle to pay its teachers a fair wage. Buying appropriate resources for a small class is also expensive. I stocked my kindergarten classroom from scratch, and found that my class of 5 pupils needed almost as many games, activities, and resources as a larger class. The cost per pupil of setting up a classroom is very high if class sizes are small.
    Because small classes are more expensive, schools may be forced to try and keep costs down by combining classes. This happened in my school, where there were frequently 3 age groups in the same class. So even though the class was small, the teacher had to run around trying to teach 3 different things at the same time.
    Small pupil numbers can also restrict course choice in high school. It just isn’t viable to run a psychology A-level if only one or two pupils wish to take it. Small schools can end up in the situation where they only offer the most popular courses.

    There are many benefits to small class sizes – the ability to provide individual instruction, having the time to assess each pupil individually, getting to know each family well – but schools need to be aware that a small school has its own challenges. Smaller can be better, but it is not necessarily easier.

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