You turn if you want to, the truck is not for turning (left)

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Solutions to problems aren’t always obvious. By that I mean mathematically modelled solutions to real life problems. This image of my favourite book from my university operations research course perhaps illustrates that I have some understanding in this area.

I was particularly struck recently by this article which looks at how UPS (in the US) calculates the best routes for its trucks. The answer? Never turn left! It seems crazy. How can that be the best option? Well, the answer is simple. At any one turn it may not be. The truck could be first in the queue with nothing coming the other way to stop it. Then it would be the best option. But over time, with a large number of trucks and a large number of deliveries, the best option, in terms of time, fuel saving and safety is to never turn left.

I was thinking about this in terms of policy. Particularly with respect to free schools (sneaky eh, straight from queues to free schools).

The policy is (we are told) designed to improve the school system by encouraging choice. That’s a laudable aim. The policy also implicitly recognises that there will be a number of negatives that come from this.

Firstly, there will be failures. Schools will have to close. You may argue that as long as the rate of failure or closure is no higher than amongst existing school then that is ok. Weeelll, perhaps, but perhaps if you are setting up a new school then you should be able to reduce those odds a little. So I would like to see what is the rate of failure in comparison to existing schools. This will take years to filter through.

Secondly there seems to be an acceptance that the schools are not all full (although the recent DfE press release seemed to be a bit over-compensatory on this issue). This is problematic in what we are told are times of austerity. But this is where the UPS trucks come in (go on, admit it, you were waiting for me to join it up). Empty school places means additional short term costs that could have been avoided with better strategic planning. However (deep breath everyone), if in the long term free schools improve the quality of education in a way that leads to higher economic output then those short term losses will pale in comparison.

Now, I can give you a list of a hundred ways the policy could have been better implemented. A list of a hundred reasons why they will not improve the quality of education. A list of a hundred reasons why they will improve the quality of education. What I can’t see happening is any attempt to have that discussion around the long term impact. For the record, I wouldn’t have attempted school improvement using that policy. But, someone did it. It happened. They exist. There are real children in real schools being educated by real educators (some of whom I have known personally for many years, people I count as friends and and I am very aware of their quality). What I don’t see happening is any attempt to have that discussion around the long term impact and how the positives that free schools will generate are to be fed back into the system. Nor is there any acceptance from proponents of free schools that existing schools have a part to play in mitigating the grosser failures the policy has (and will) led to. A dialogue has to exist and the only way it will happen is if everyone recognises realities.

Which are these:

  • Free schools exist
  • Some of them have failed
  • The failure of some was predictable and predicted
  • Some will be great and other schools will learn useful things from them
  • Existing schools will be required to support free schools become great
  • Choice and strategy are not incompatible in a time of growing student numbers
  • Choice without strategy is negligent in a time of austerity
  • Existing maintained schools are already the best at some aspects of their work
  • In the absence of external factors, success in a school is largely cyclical
  • There will be more free schools

Freedom is a great idea. Individuals are capable of making good decisions. But there is a reason that UPS don’t let their drivers turn left.

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