Under the Tories, the Free School experiment will go on unabated. 400 have been created since 2010, another 49 were announced yesterday, and Cameron is promising another 500 should, God forbid, the Tories be elected in May.
It’s pretty damn obvious what their agenda is. The Tories aim is to break up comprehensive, publicly funded education and make it safe for private interests. Softly, softly at first, but nonetheless determined to achieve their goal. Just as the privatisation of the NHS started with the introduction of the internal market (a Tory initiative which New Labour enthusiastically promoted), Free Schools are just the thin end of a bigger wedge.
It could be argued, of course, that the dam had already been breached. The Academy Schools programme, New Labour’s showpiece, introduced many of the ideas (of self management, of independent financial structures and outsourced education provision) which Free Schools are merely the extension of. Yes, that is absolutely true (whoops, they did it again) – and it is also the reason why the vast majority of ordinary Labour Party members were adamantly opposed to the introduction of Academies. But the party hierarchy didn’t listen and ploughed on regardless – dazzled by the idea of shiny new, PFI schools. Now the Tories are able to use the idea of “forced academisation” to complete the job. See here for the NUT’s explanation of how this process works. In addition, Tristram Hunt’s talk of “parent-led Academies” is worrying and, again, has no support amongst party members. In the long term, it’s vital that Labour reassess the Academy Programme and revisit the comprehensive ideal which was at the heart of their educational policy pre-Blair. That will only happen if they’re forced to by genuine, grassroots pressure.
But the really insidious thing about Free Schools – and this is why Labour should be clear that they have no part to play in our education system – is how the idea preys on the hopes of parents. Free Schools offer the illusion of choice, of parents taking control. It’s understandable that the number one priority for the vast majority of parents is providing the best for the children who take precedence over all others – their own. It sounds great. Not happy with your school? Well, here you are, here’s the right to set up your own one – with a big fat, cheque to boot. But it’s an individualistic mind-set, one which often ignores the rights of the child down the road, or in the next village – out of sight and out of mind. Neither does it take into account the long term future of our children’s education. For that reason, parents aren’t always the best people to make the decisions about our education system, no matter how attractive that idea might sound in theory. That’s why we need democratic control over our education.
That is not to say that the old LEA system was perfect. It had become heavily bureaucratised and impenetrable for parents who wanted a say in their child’s education. Of course it’s right that any return to across-the-board Local Authority control should be based on a reform of that system, with a greater say for parents, children and communities. But that doesn’t mean that the idea of local, democratic control of education is a bad thing in itself. In fact, without it, we can kiss goodbye to ever making decisions on education for the collective good again. Every decision on education will be premised on a competitive, dog-eat-dog philosophy. And we all know who will be the long term losers – working class families, whose voices will not be heard in the same way. So if we genuinely aim for a more equal education system, one that gives every kid the best chance no matter what the accident of their birth, we must have democratic accountability, not a free-for-all.
As we’ve seen, many Free Schools have been chaotic, and some down right scary. That hope of a better education is often illusory, as parents have learnt in practice. Right here in Durham, the Free School opened by disgruntled parents has been given a closure notice by Ofsted after it was found to be failing in “all areas”, and after inspectors found the presence of “discriminatory views” towards people of other beliefs, but it’s hardly the only one. There have been a catalogue of horror stories. But, for the Tories that doesn’t really matter. They’re prepared to take the hit of a few failures, because this is about a long term political game, not about raising standards or providing better educational environments for children. The Free Schools, merely by their very existence, are a propaganda tool which can and will chip away at the foundations of comprehensive education. That’s their real purpose and that is the name of the game.
Labour should recognise the game and oppose Free Schools in their entirety. That means taking the politically brave decision to close them all. That will entail a commitment to find alternative provision for those suckered in by the Free School promise. After all, it’s not their fault – they were sold the opportunity to improve their children’s educational lot. However, to avoid that decision will risk making them same mistake that New Labour made with the NHS. Do we want to be sitting here in 10 years time wishing we’d had the balls to stand up to the Tories privatising agenda in education, when the opportunity was there?