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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research fellow, Centre for Policy Studies; visiting professor of education policy, University of Derby; project leader, Phoenix Free School of Oldham
head of public affairs, British Humanist Association
founder and principal, East London Science School; director, the Physics Factory
programme director for online learning, TES
Dr Mark Taylor
vice principal, East London Science School; London convenor, IoI Education Forum
In the modern Left’s worldview, if the state isn’t permanently on standby with its ready-made list of values, bucketloads of welfare cash, parenting advice and whatnot, then ordinary people will starve, go mad, turn racist and end up as fodder for fascism.Brendan O'Neill, Daily Telegraph, 8 October 2012
A teaching union chief has accused Education Secretary Michael Gove of risking an increase inBrian Wheeler, BBC News, 4 October 2012
England’s schools are radically different. Now make them betterEconomist, 15 September 2012
Podcast of the recent Battle Satellite on Free Schools, held in conjunction with the IoI Education ForumEducation Forum, 4 October 2010
If the government uses the pupil premium to give children eligible for free school meals a voucher worth £10,000 or more, that could transform the life chances of the very poorest children. It is policies like that that will shrink the attainment gap between children of the rich and the poor, not pouring money into shiny new school buildings.Toby Young, Daily Telegraph blogs, 16 August 2010
The left has always been allergic to independence from the state, but in this case it cannot claim that independence means unfairnessMinette Marrin, The Sunday Times, 31 May 2010
The Battle against the Fates
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Wes Streeting, chief executive, Helena Kennedy Foundation