No School is an Island: The Isolation of Free Schools

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


Direct contractual relationships with the Secretary of State for Education underpin vertical corporate governance infrastructures guiding autonomous, civil-society actor-led, Free Schools. Relevant policy and guidance embodies the broader shift in emphasis from the role of representation to founder-governor skills in development and governance processes. Autonomy is exemplified in freedom in decision making and independence from stakeholders such as Local Authorities. Findings are presented from three in-depth case studies of the founder-governor perspective in the development process of Free Schools; based upon surveys, interviews and secondary data. The research draws from multiple theoretical conceptions of strategic complexity to provide a novel social perspective on debates emerging within the fields of policy, policy implementation, governance and governing. A quasi-market competitive rationale can be seen to underpin approved school locations and an emphasis on demand rather than need. This exposes new challenges for how to conceive of wider education provision in policy where isolation is a bi-product of school independence in policy. Potential isolation is seen as a consequence of the social processes involved in the founding and development of such schools within the current policy and governance framework. Strategic freedom provides founders and governors the opportunity to reallocate value judgments, drawing into question the extent to which individual school strategies fit within local and national purposes for public service provision. This study demonstrates how Free Schools may perpetuate a shift away from school leaders serving a function as representatives. The findings reveal significant challenges for ensuring alignment of service provision to locality as governance arrangements decreasingly necessitate holistic forms of co-production. Social distance from local communities has the capacity to become embodied in isolation from local values, concerns and perspectives. This suggests that geographic location may be insufficient to evidence educational outcomes prescribed in policy. Strategic freedoms equally have the capacity to become embodied in isolation from Central Government’s own education values. The risk of isolation is further seen to undermine ‘quality equality’ in the wider provision of education. These consequences present a challenge for policy and practice in their current forms, leading to recommendations to rethink horizontal governance in terms of transparency and local input without undermining the benefits of autonomy. It is further argued that there is a need to rethink how common and local educational purposes underpin governance rationales across networks of state-funded schools of different formats.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jul 2015
EventBritish Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society: Democracy: Time for Renewal or Retreat in Educational Leadership - Wokefield Park Conference Centre, Reading, United Kingdom
Duration: 10 Jul 201512 Jul 2015


ConferenceBritish Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society
Abbreviated titleBELMAS Annual Conference 2015
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • contract governance
  • Free Schools
  • school autonomy
  • education policy


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