The free school policy has been a central area of controversy in the education world. When I first heard about it in the run up to the 2010 election, it immediately appealed to me. I was so pleased to hear a politician talking about handing some control of their own money back to taxpayers, and trusting parents more with decisions about their own child’s education. It just seemed like common sense. I’ve been surprised in the last five years at how much vitriol has been poured on the initiative. Why is it that there are so many vocal and bitter opponents of free schools?
Firstly, it must be admitted that there are bad free schools, in case anyone thinks I am suggesting that it is a magic bullet for transforming education. There are bad schools of every type in existence. That in itself proves nothing, any more than meeting a rude Frenchman means I should conclude that the whole nation lacks manners.
Having studied the background to the policy, and looked at how similar initiatives have played out in the USA, I’ve concluded that the hatred for free schools derives chiefly from political ideology, not educational theory. But of course, the two are very much entangled in public education policy.
Free schools are perceived by many on the left as a kind of privatisation, because they reduce the role of government officials in the provision of education. It is odd that so many on the left have such a naive trust in the effectiveness of unelected bureaucrats, believing that they are the professionals, and the groups of parents and teachers aiming to set up free schools are amateurs, who can’t possibly be trusted with public money. Parents happen to know quite a lot about children actually, possibly a bit more than a twenty-two year old fresh from a programme of progressive indoctrination (also known as a PGCE).
Then there is the horror at the permission to employ ‘unqualified’ teachers. Given the current dominance of anti-educational ideas on most teacher training courses, this is another blow to those who wish to keep our education system dumbed down and patronisingly adapted to what is ‘relevant’ to the disadvantaged.
And of course the teaching unions hate the free school policy, because it allows headteachers more power to set pay and conditions, and even, horror of horrors, to remove an incompetent member of staff. Here we have a measure of local, personal accountability being introduced to a profession in which virtually none existed before, and I suppose that is always going to make some people uncomfortable.
Actually, it seems to me that Gove knew his enemies when he initiated this policy. He had read his E D Hirsch, and he knew that until the power centres of progressive ideology were undermined, there would be little progress towards a proper education for all. Those power centres are local education authorities, university education departments and teaching unions. The growth of free schools and academies significantly undermines the stifling grip of all three.
It may be that there will come a day when we can rebuild our education system in a more systematic way based on a consensus in favour of actually teaching children something. But right now, education is a battleground, and a certain amount of creative destruction is necessary before we can move forward.