Education Secretary Michael Gove recently announced the first wave of 16 ‘free schools’, although earlier much higher numbers had been discussed. Free schools are one of the Government’s flagship education reforms and a significant part of David Cameron’s ‘big society’. This gives parents, teachers, charities and companies the ability to set up their own state-funded school outside of local authority control. So are free schools a useful way forward or just another education fad?
Many of the groups are motivated by a desire for more school places. “Most are grassroots groups, though there are two backed by private education firms, and a number of the schools will have a strong religious flavour,” explained The Guardian.
The most widely publicised new school is probably the West London Free School, led by author Toby Young. “Michael Gove has approved our proposal – but there’s still a huge amount to do”, wrote Young in the Daily Telegraph, which reported that a third of new free schools will be run by faith groups; there are proposals for Britain’s second Hindu state school, in Leicester, for example.
“In the first move of its kind, one primary school in Slough will be run by a private firm – the Childcare Company, which provides training for nurseries – although it will not be allowed to make a profit,” said the paper, which also noted that another primary in West Sussex will be run by the Montessori movement.
“There is a strong emphasis on academic performance across all the free school projects,” reported The Guardian. “The Stour Valley school plans a traditional core of subjects, based on the ‘gold standard of GCSEs’ but tied in with this will be an awareness of which courses will prove useful at work.”
Labour and the unions have criticised free schools: Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUWT said that there’s a wealth of “international evidence that confirm(s) that academies and free schools are a recipe for educational inequality and social segregation.”
The Telegraph quoted Ed Balls, the Shadow Education Secretary and Labour leadership candidate as saying: “It’s laughable for Michael Gove to claim that just 16 free schools opening next year exceeds his expectations. In the summer he talked about 700 new free schools and a year ago he was talking about thousands.”
Children choose whether to attend lessons
It’s interesting to contrast the academic aspirations of many of these groups with those of the original alternative ‘free school’; A.S Neill’s Summerhill School is a co-educational boarding school in Suffolk, where children choose whether or not to attend lessons. All members of the community – adults and children, irrespective of age – are equal in making school decisions democratically. Founded in 1921, it continues to be an influential model for progressive, democratic education around the world – a place where “success is not defined by academic achievement but by the child’s own definition of success.”
Meanwhile, over in the Daily Telegraph, one reader commenting on Toby Young’s school advised: “As well as Latin being compulsory, French or German must be compulsory up to age of 16… Avoid at all costs trendy subjects for obvious reasons…”
“Recruit teachers with some real life experience too – army, travel, business – they often inspire pupils, drop the requirement for a PGCE (as is the case in the private sector) – this has deterred a lot of potential teachers,” continued the contributor.
Now there’s a thought!
• See our earlier pre-election coverage on education policy
• Are free schools the way forward for education? Will we see many more registering in the months and years to come, or are they just another education fad?