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‘Free Schools’ not wanted here

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So the Tory flagship policy of so-called ‘free schools’ has just been launched down the slipway.    It has been sold as increasing choice, breaking free from the oppressive control of local authorities, and allowing parents and the local community to set up and run schools in the way they wish.   The real motive is perhaps rather less elevated or honourable.   It is to escape disorderly inner city schools with poor teaching and worse discipline, full of disruptive working class kids and too many immigrants.

Of course Michael Gove will argue that it allows opting out in the spirit of the distinctive and superior grant-maintained schoolds and city technology schools of the 1980s or even a throwback to the prized pre-1944 grammar schools.   Opting out has always been the preferred way both of Tories and New Labour, backed by higher pay or knighthoods to bribe their backers.   But where is the evidence that such experiments have ever succeeded?   Independent assessment of academies’ performance have presented a very mixded picture, their sponsors rarely contribute even the £2 million subscription, whilst often acting as purveyors of intellectual eccentricities.

Moreover the whole idea of free schools a la the Swedish model seems deeply flawed.   Even the organisation-oriented middle classes are not rearing to take over and run schools, hospitals and police forces.   They want good schools, efficient hospitals and accountable police forces, but not to create and manage them themselves.   Neither the Thatcher policy of removing schools from local authorities nor the Blair policy of generating independent State schools (a conceptual oxymoron) ever attracted many takers.

And of course choice, the talisman of the Right, always opens up the prospect of two-tier or multi-tier services – the risk of balancing the excellence claimed at one end of the spectrum with sink schools at the other.   The vision is always of using market forces to drag up schools from the slough rather than using public intervention to drain the slough for all schools in the first place.

Above all where is the evidence  that re-engineering the local educational structure has the proven track record to justify imposing yet another upheaval?   Previous panaceas have settled on smaller classes, refurbished buildings, more hierarchical pay incentives, or privatised budgeting as the secret key to the breakthrough in school outcomes, but none has been found to make a decisive difference.   Maybe instead of these capitalist solutions a more profound impact could be achieved by much more systematic working with parents and local communities to win over indifferent or hostile families in support of educational aspirations for their children.   And it would cost far less too.


  1. Thomas Byrne says:

    You don’t seem to have pointed out any flaws in the Swedish Model.

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