Free schools: myth and reality

Sunday 21 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Frobisher 4-6

With 24 ‘free schools’ open, and another 79 on the way, it seems education minister Michael Gove has struck a nerve by inviting parents to ‘go it alone’. Free schools are so called because they are independent of local education authorities, receiving money direct from the Department of Education, though critics suggest that money too comes with strings attached. Nevertheless, that so many ‘amateurs’ have chosen to go through the meticulous and demanding process indicates Free Schools have caught the popular imagination. If David Cameron’s Big Society is dead, Gove’s army of would-be educators is definitely alive and kicking.

Despite this seeming grassroots support, critics have been vociferous in their opposition. Although a mere 100 new schools hardly represent a threat to the 25,000 state schools in Britain, the Campaign for State Education ominously talks of privatisation as the secret agenda. This suspicion has been fuelled further by the conservative think tank Policy Exchange advising the government that the way to make free schools take off is to allow private companies to become stakeholders. Is this an admission that setting up a school is not a viable proposition without corporate backing? Does pushing for the profit motive to enter the mix undermine the idea of altruistic parents and teachers working together only driven by academic excellence and so on? Meanwhile, supporters of universal state provision of schools, such as Fiona Millar, Melissa Benn and Francis Gilbert have set up the Local Schools Network, arguing that the middle classes will use these free schools to opt out of mainstream educational provision, leading to greater social segregation. Others, such as the British Humanist Association fear the schools are being hijacked by social interest groups, citing the fact that seven of a recent tranche of 10 applications had religious connections, raising the prospect of creationist schools.

Might opponents of free schools be viewing a positive initiative through jaundiced eyes? Is there a danger that seeing the worst of motives in those fed up with inadequate state provision may be its own form of elitism? As if the state is always a better provider of social goods, in preference to independent groups of passionate activists? While today it is social progressives who are most often champions of state education, might not free schools take their inspiration from the radical tradition of nineteenth-century socialist, cooperative and Chartist ‘secular Sunday schools’, which cherished their independence from the state? Or are the aspirations of parents for a better education than that on offer from the bog-standard comp being exploited by forces with hidden agendas? Are free schools a Trojan horse for a less free and more unequal society?

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Tom Burkard
research fellow, Centre for Policy Studies; visiting professor of education policy, University of Derby; project leader, Phoenix Free School of Oldham

Pavan Dhaliwal
head of public affairs, British Humanist Association

David Perks
founder and principal, East London Science School; director, the Physics Factory

Michael Shaw
programme director for online learning, TES

Dr Mark Taylor
vice principal, East London Science School; London convenor, IoI Education Forum

Produced by
David Perks founder and principal, East London Science School; director, the Physics Factory
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