TIMES EDUCATION SUPPLEMENT – FREE SCHOOLS DEBATE
NUT opposed to free schools but parents fight back
Toby Young, the author and journalist, is heading moves to set up a parent led school in West London.
Ranged against him and the parents, and much in evidence in a debate last week on free schools, sponsored by the TES, are producer interests in the form of the NUT and the Anti Academies Alliance.
The polarization of opinions was laid bare in this TES debate. However, although union activists were much in evidence at the debate, opinion for and against the free schools proposals was pretty equally divided, both at the start and finish of the debate.
Inevitably the union contingent attempted to transform the issue into right against left, and middle classes against the rest. They largely failed in this because it is clear that the 500 strong parent group trying to set up the school are predominantly working class, have mixed political allegiances and almost certainly pretty much reflect the demographics of the local catchment area, while the state- school educated Toby Young, the schools champion, has never voted Tory and only will, on this occasion, it appears, because they propose the policy that allows him and his confederates to set up their school. The parents involved are not happy with the curriculum provided by other local schools in the area and they want their children to have access to a broader, more traditional, rigorous curriculum which is currently not on offer in Ealing/Acton schools. Young assured the audience that the new free school will be non-selective and rigorously apply the admissions code, nor will it operate on a first come, first served basis which could advantage pushy parents.
The parent group is looking for a profit or not for profit organization to run their school and the governing body will be made up of parents and teachers who will not allow profiteering. Young seemed genuinely bemused as to what objections the NUT speaker might have to this. The NUT is adamantly opposed to Academies, in general, and doesn’t believe that any school should be established outside the accountability framework of the LA, and while believing that parents should be involved in their child’s education, this should not extend, in its view, to parents setting up schools, as these schools they claim will damage other local schools (though evidence from Sweden suggests that they help drive up standards in all schools, both free and municipal).
The normal accusations flew over selection, segregation, fragmentation, privatization ,a two tiered system developing, along with criticism of the Swedish and Charter school models and their effectiveness, but it is clear that there will be no meetings of minds on this, positions are entrenched and conflicting research backing both sides of the argument can easily be invoked.
My view is that providing there is a robust regulatory environment and no selection with a demonstrable demand for a new school, then how can you object. After all there is incoherence in the argument that you want more parental involvement but you don’t want them to set up schools.
The actions of a parents group in Lambeth is instructive. They pressed for a new state secondary school against the backdrop of a long standing capacity shortage (many parents had to send their children out of the authority area because of a shortage of Secondary places) forcing the local authority to address the shortage problem ,after years of evasion but not without a considerable struggle. Parents were the catalyst (not the local authority nor the unions). You would have thought from what the NUT speaker at this debate said that the NUT were prime movers in getting this new school up and running. They were not.
Union leaders don’t seem to like free schools because they worry about accountability and the loss of teacher voice. There is also a suspicion that quite a few teachers actually don’t much like the reality of more parental involvement and there was an inkling of this in contributions to the debate.Producer interests feel threatened, particularly the cosy relationship between local union reps and local authority officials who see this free school revolution as by- passing them.
However, tight contracts with providers deliver greater real accountability than the so called ‘democratic’ accountability model,so lauded by unions, that allows failing schools to continue operating for years in certain local authorities blighting the life opportunities of far too many children .There is potentially huge scope for teachers voices to heard on governing bodies too, and this is certainly the case with the proposed West London free school. There is even scope, under Tory proposals, for co-operatives to be set up- so it’s a bit of an upside down world when the NUT oppose the establishment of co-ops, isn’t it?