Contentious free schools may get much needed shot in the arm from new link to football clubs
BY BENJAMIN MCCORMACK
The Academies Act of 2010, introduced in the United Kingdom by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, allowed for the creation of so-called ‘free schools’: independent schools that can be set up by private businesses, community groups or concerned parents, are state-funded but are not controlled by a local authority. This became something of a flag ship initiative for Education Secretary Michael Gove, who has claimed that the programme will succeed in creating greater local competition and therefore drive up educational standards (Gove, 2012) in a manner which he says reflects wider international trends in education (Machin & Vernoit, 2014). Despite a backdrop of vehement protestations and dissatisfaction (NUT, 2012), Gove is determined to make a success of his free school initiative, and it is obviously with this in mind that he is now encouraging football clubs to become key contributors to the programme.
Football is this nation’s greatest game, and future international events, such as the World Cup, will have the ability to capture an unrivalled audience. Thousands of fans turn out each week to support their favourite club and the relationship between club and fan is the basis for many community events held by Premier league and lower league clubs. Gove has recently called upon Premier League and Championship clubs especially, to begin opening free schools of their own, in order to “give something back to the local community”, which is often a community that is united behind such a football club. It is this position as the “heartbeat” of local communities, which Gove claims makes these clubs ideally placed to become the newest organisations to break ground on innovative free schools (Paton, 2014). Up to now there have only been a handful of clubs who have appeared keen to follow Gove’s advice, with Tottenham Hotspur recently declaring their intention to follow the lead of Everton and Derby County in helping to run a school funded by the taxpayer (Boffey, 2012). It is clearly early days for football club driven free schools, but there is already evidence that this linkage to the United Kingdom’s national obsession could provide a much needed shot in the arm for the free school initiative.
If you take Everton’s pioneering free school as an example, you see an independent school which began just two years ago with a mere 15 pupils on its roll, but which has recently lodged plans with Liverpool City Council to open up on a new site allowing it to cater to 200 children (Johnson, 2014). This is an impressive expansion plan that suggests a good deal of success in the short time that the school has been in operation, and also reveals the reason why Gove might be right in claiming that football clubs are indeed ideally placed to open his free schools. This revelation comes from the fact that Everton Football Club’s free school was by no means the start of the club’s forays into the local community, and instead can be seen as an extension of the Everton in the Community Scheme, which has been active since the mid-80s and a registered charity since 2004 (Barrett-Baxendale, 2014). It is clear from this, that clubs do already have, and are already fostering, the kind of community links which Gove believes are crucial to the success of free schools. The schools’ detractors, on the other hand, take an altogether different view.
Teachers’ leaders, and most notably the National Union of Teachers (NUT), take a dim view of free schools in general, and have also weighed in on the topic of football clubs establishing such institutions, claiming that this places the crucial responsibility of children’s education into the hands of those with no experience in the field. In an interview with the Telegraph newspaper Christine Blower, the general secretary of the NUT, clarifies their position by claiming that they do not object to football clubs assisting with youth education but that they “can readily think of existing organisations which are ideally placed to bring communities together and take charge of children’s education” and that these are local authorities (Paton, 2014). This particular criticism of the idea of football club running free schools stands alongside a number of other compelling arguments of the NUT that any kind of free schools are a hindrance (NUT, 2012) rather than a help to the teaching profession. The most notable of these arguments include the claims that free schools undermine the professional status, pay and conditions of teachers, damage local authorities’ ability to plan and manage schooling within their regions and unfairly skew the funding of education in the UK by taking a disproportionate amount of investment from the government.
It would be wholly wrong to ignore or disregard these reasoned arguments from those who represent the teaching profession, and have done so for far longer than the free school initiative has existed, but if free schools ever could work then it may well be as a part of an established and respected community-oriented programme. However, there are few programmes of this type with the required gravitas to successfully establish a free school, but those related to major football clubs are certainly best placed. This has been demonstrated, albeit on a limited and short term scale, by the Everton Football Club free school and, as well as suggesting that more clubs may soon follow Everton, Derby and Tottenham’s lead, it also indicates that this avenue may be the most successful one yet for the free school programme as a whole.
News published by RESPONSIBALL
Contact us if you have any questions or news that you would like to share.
Barrett-Baxendale, D. (2014) 25th Anniversary [Online]. Available from: <http://community.evertonfc.com/everton-in-the-community-25-years/> [Accessed 6 May 2014].
Boffey, D. (2012) Tottenham Hotspur in talks to open free school at their new stadium [Online]. Available from: <http://www.theguardian.com/education/2012/feb/05/tottenham-hotspur-free-school> [Accessed 5 May 2014].
Gove, M. (2012) Prime Minister: more new free schools than ever before to raise standards and increase choice [Online]. Available from: <https://www.gov.uk/government/news/prime-minister-more-new-free-schools-than-ever-before-to-raise-standards-and-increase-choice> [Accessed 6 May 2014].
Johnson, M. (2014) Everton FC free school building work begins on new multi-million pound development [Online]. Available from: <http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/everton-fc-free-school-building-6945658> [Accessed 5 May 2014].
Machin, S. & Vernoit, J. (2014) Changing School Autonomy: Academy Schools and their Introduction to England’s Education. [Internet]. London, Centre for the Economics of Education. Available from: <http://cee.lse.ac.uk/ceedps/ceedp123.pdf> [Accessed 11 May 2014].
NUT, (2012) Free Schools: A Cause for Concern [Online]. Available from: <http://www.teachers.org.uk/node/15481> [Accessed 5 May 2014].
Paton, G. (2014) Gove wants football clubs to help run state schools [Online]. Available from: <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10683319/Gove-wants-football-clubs-to-help-run-state-schools.html> [Accessed 5 May 2014].