What is the point of ‘free’ schools?

So, 102 new ‘free schools’ are approved to open in September 2014. I look on with bemusement and wonder, why? If the justification is to improve provision where there are shortages, that can’t be right because we know the shortages coming up will be in the primary sector and most of the new schools will be secondary. Perhaps it’s part of the ‘market’ offering parents greater choice? Well, that would make some kind of twisted sense but a number of the proposed new schools have a particular ‘bent’ yet clearly will only be available to pupils living in the local area. This was always the problem with ‘specialist schools’: supposing I thought my ten-year-old was a budding linguist (not sure how I’d know that, but anyway…) but my local schools were specialists in sport, Maths and the Arts. No choice for me there, then.

It becomes clear, therefore, that many of these schools are ‘kite-flying’ for a particular type of education, such as the ‘military style’ school to be opened in Oldham which, again by some kind of twisted logic, acording to Toby Young, will help prevent young Muslim boys becoming radicalised (but only in Oldham obviously, and only if their parents choose to send them there, and only after next September). It’s nonsense, isn’t it? If we need schools to experiment with different kinds of teaching, curricula and the like, existing schools have enough freedom already, and an existing record to measure against and to fall back on. In any case, I’m frankly baffled why any parent would sign up their child for a school that doesn’t exist yet, unless they have a particular bee in their bonnet about a certain style or type of school, or want their child indoctrinated by one of the many religious ‘free schools’ being set up.

Of course, many of us believe we know the real purpose behind the encouragement of ‘free schools’ : the breakup and ultimate privatisation of the state education system. What better proof than the inclusion in the list of 102 of the Blackburn Grammar School. It’s currently an independent fee-paying school. What possible justification can there be for taking it into the ‘state sector’ and letting the taxpayers foot the bill? What will the taxpayer gain by this largesse? Um, nothing. What will the pupils gain (apart from slightly better-off parents now they no longer have to pay fees)? How will being in the state sector affect curriculum? Not at all, since the National Curriculum doesn’t apply to ‘free schools’ or academies (or the independent sector).

I continue to write ‘free schools’ in inverted commas because they are not, of course, free. We the taxpayers have paid for them to be set up via the grants we make annually to The New Schools Network (proprietor, Rachel Wolf, formerly of Gove Education Ltd) and, once set up, we will pay for them via their ‘cut’ of the money made available for all schools. However, I suppose I ought to drop those inverted commas because, frankly, they ARE free to thumb their noses at us — and the local community — and to do what they hell they like. An incoming Labour government needs a credible plan to take these schools back under local  democratic accountability.

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