If “free schools” is the answer we are asking the wrong question.


Back to school! But what kind of school? 24 “free schools” will be opening their doors next month; free from the shackles of local authority governance, free from the national curriculum.. Free to teach meditation and to select a religion to promote…..  Free from scrutiny as to the cost to the taxpayer apparently. So not free after all……

I happen to believe in the old fashioned notion that every child should have access to a good education. No, not just a good training to get into university, or to suit future employers. But an education that meets the Every Child Matters criteria , creating rounded individuals who can not only carry out paid work but can enjoy their leisure time, empathise with others and can feel involved in the decisions that shape their lives.

To do this, I think we need to get away from the idea that schools are just there to provide employees for businesses and industry. I think we should be teaching creativity, invention and an ability to question.

Yes, we need to teach basic skills, not just for employment, but for life as a whole. To do these things, schools do need to be able to be flexible. Let all schools be freed to adapt some aspects of the national curriculum  (though to be fair, I think some schools have used the NC as an excuse) and be given instead a framework on which they can build. Let’s get away from the scorecard league tables and the pathetic targets.

I want my local school to provide an education for my child. If my child is academically minded, I want him to be pushed academically and allowed to study what he wants, not what is seen as cool by his peers or school tables. If my child likes taking things apart and seeing how they work, I want her to be encouraged to do this. If my child doesn’t get God I went them to understand that they can still have moral values.

Free schools, do not address these issues. Whether elitist or not, they will created ghettoes  where children who do not share the ethos will either have to buckle down (undermining their self belief) or cross town to another school.

The tinkering with labels by the labour and coalition parties has avoided the central question which we must address: What is education for? Free schools do not provide the answer.

Two good articles this weekend about education: The importance of history   and Kids need a licence to tinker

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5 responses to “If “free schools” is the answer we are asking the wrong question.”

  1. Tim Stanton (@tim7168) says :

    As we’ve been discussing on Twitter, I’ve found myself fairly ambivalent towards the idea of Free Schools. While I appreciate there are some legitimate concerns about their potential effect on the system and the way in which the policy has been implemented, I have not found myself swayed strongly in either direction.

    I don’t really see, for example, how the creation of independent schools precludes any of the positive outcomes you list here. There is certainly room for doubt, and the risk that some schools may not provide the ideal that you look for in the education of your child, but that is a flaw of the system as it stands anyway. Bear in mind that parents will drive the success or failure of free schools – if they feel they would not provide the type of education they wanted for their child (in the vast majority of cases, the type of education you have described), they would not send them there.

    I increasingly feel that until schools are allowed to be truly independent, education will remain the same counter-productive political battleground that it has been for decades and that many of the things you lament (league tables, ridiculous targets) will continue to define them. In a world in which, let’s face it, EVERYONE believes themselves to be an expert in the field of education, maybe it’s time to say that no one person (and especially not a politician!) actually knows what is best and maybe we should allow some new ideas to actually float.

    I know that much of the focus of the opposition to free schools has been on the number of religious groups/charitable trusts, as opposed to teachers/parents, setting up schools, but once again this does not mean that it is not possible. I know so many inspiring individuals who I would be far happier to entrust a small section of the education system to than one power mad unqualified politician in charge of the whole lot.

    So for now, I remain on the fence.

  2. overhere1 says :

    Thanks for your thoughtful response.I agree the system is flawed and desperately in need of changing, but I don’t see the current free school idea is the answer. You say that parents will drive the success or failure of free schools. Indeed. But what about the children of parents who do not value education? Those parents that care- why don’t they fight to make their local school work? There is far more flexibility within the system- flawed though it is- than people will admit.
    The free school system- bypassing the local authority- is more likely, in my view, to be in the hands of a power mad politician ( and his buddies) than a locally accountable system.

    • Tim Stanton (@tim7168) says :

      Parents who do not value education still have to get their children into a school, why would a free school be necessarily less equipped to cater to their needs?

      There would be flexibility in the system were it not for the ‘levers of power’ – eg. Ofsted, league tables and targets – forcing schools to concentrate on certain things. Yes there is some flexibility within the curriculum, but not beyond 5 A*-C (or now the EBacc – an even narrower focus) or Level 4 in Reading, Writing, Maths etc. Yes, parents should definitely be encouraged to get behind their schools and massively discouraged from treating it like a consumer service (an idea which has blighted educational policy since Thatcher), but at the same time what if there are parents out there who don’t think GCSEs are the right route for their child and want something different?

      I appreciate there does appear to be a disturbing element of centralisation at work here – although theoretically the only time a politician would be able to intervene would be if the school was obviously failing as many of the ‘levers’ that apply to state schools do not apply to free schools. I do not see why this has to bypass Local Authorities but that’s a whole separate issue.

  3. overhere1 says :

    I agree with much of what you say but I don’t believe the free school system provides the answers.
    I would just say that a politician has intervened by giving money to one provider of advice and that some schools have been told that if they don’t become “free” they will be turned into academies.

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