THE OPPOSITION TO FREE SCHOOLS
Who is pro-who is anti ?
It sometimes feels as though those supporting Free schools are in the minority. So its worth looking at who is pro and who is against. If you look at the media we know that the Times, Sunday Times, Sun, FT ,Telegraph, Daily Mail , Economist and Spectator are pro Free schools. The TES is broadly supportive too. ( although there are divisions among TES journalists)) .The Independent is sitting on the fence, along with the BBC (although some might dispute this) with the Guardian and Observer leaning towards the anti stable and the Mirror definitely anti. So the media in the round is broadly supportive of free schools.
In the media the most quoted pro free school spokespeople are Toby Young, setting up a free school in west London and Katharine Birbalsingh , the latter a former deputy head of a state schools , who caused such a stir at the last Conservative conference by criticising the education system and poor aspirations. Both have blogs hosted by the Telegraph.
The New Schools Network headed by Rachel Wolf provides support for those parents seeking to set up Free schools, and seems to punch above its weight with a powerful group of advisers behind it, including Baroness Sally Morgan, soon to Head Ofsted
On the anti-side Fiona Millar the Guardian Columnist, and Chair of the Board of Governors of William Ellis, a comprehensive in North London (with an interim Headteacher and 55% 5 or more GCSE A* – C grades including Maths and English) and Francis Gilbert, a media studies teacher in a Comprehensive are prominent in opposing free schools , operating a blog, site the Local Schools Network (not the same as the New schools Network which supports Free schools, though -the similarity in name is not accidental). Melissa Benn also frequently contributes to the anti-lobby and writes for LSN. She co-wrote a pamphlet with Millar arguing that Academies and Free schools were damaging to comprehensive schools, diverting scarce resources away from them to new schools that are surplus to requirements. . Another similar blog peddling pretty much the same line is ‘The Truth about our Schools’. The left wing lobby group Compass is also anti.
Politically the Coalition is broadly in favour of Free schools, at the national level at least, though some Tory and Lib Dem councillors are not so supportive. The Labour party is broadly against, though Lord Adonis the former education Minister and Conor Ryan who advised David Blunkett when he was education Secretary are in favour. Barry Sheerman the former (Labour) Chairman of the Education Select Committee is also broadly in favour of the reforms evidenced in the new Education Bill. Andy Burnhams view is hostile in principle ,to Free schools but he falls short of saying that he will abolish them should Labour win power. In the Second Reading Debate on the Education Bill he said that he would look at how well a school was integrated within the local community and its impact on outcomes before deciding its fate. Nonetheless he believes that the Coalitions Academies scheme is a corruption of the original scheme, as it is now much broader and not just focused on disadvantaged areas (although the architect of the original scheme Lord Adonis, the former Labour education Minister has no problem with broadening the scope providing there is no selection and fair funding)
The Anti-Academies alliance is anti-free schools too. Nick Grant, co-founder of the Anti Academies Alliance, is a long-standing Socialist Workers Party member and claims in a Socialist Review magazine article that ‘education workers globally and at all levels [are] being proletarianised at a rate of knots’. The Socialist Workers Party according to the STA website ‘plays a prominent role in current union campaigns’ and its members ‘are active in the majority of local NUT associations and divisions’. Certainly the NUT have recently mobilised to attack head teachers and parents sympathetic to Michael Gove’s plans for education reform (combining with the GMB) in what Fraser Nelson and Ed Howker of The Spectator describe as ‘a secret war which will decide the future of English education’. Its not very secret, it has to be said. Christine Blower who heads the NUT condemns both free schools and the Academies scheme, believing that they are divisive, that they amount to privatisation and will lead to a redirection of resources away from some disadvantaged schools and pupils. The fact that the private sector cant profit from running state schools hasn’t stopped allegations from unions that the system is being privatised. The NUT criticises both the Swedish free schools system and US charter schools and having turned their backs on Sweden, promote the ‘comprehensive’ system in Finland. Blower strikes fairly typical stances that one might expect from an NUT leader, and has a left wing pedigree.
The GMB union has been particularly animated in campaigning against the Bolingbroke Academy not far from Clapham Junction. Labelling it the bankers free school , union leaders push the view that Free schools will atomise the schools system and are about middle class parents setting up schools for their own children at the expense of local disadvantaged children.
Groups are springing up now to provide more support to those wanting to set up Free schools and the Government appears to have taken on board that they need to give more proactive support to groups of parents who are peceived to be under under attack.
One big problem is the fact the debate has become so polarised and, yes, political. Seemingly sensible ,rational parents spend their time seeking to score points over those on the other side, often cherry picking evidence along the way while making it all uncomfortably personal.
There should be room for a mature constructive debate which addresses the legitimate concerns of both parties. There is more common ground than either side seems prepared to concede, particularly over issues such as admissions, special education needs and support for the most disadvantaged pupils. It seems unlikely though that the tone of this debate is going to change any time soon.
One factor that is rarely taken into account is that although most politicians champion more parental involvement and engagement in their child’s education as a good thing, some teachers see this as a threat to their professionalism and slightly dread ‘pushy’ parents camped on what they see as their lawn, and the practical consequences this might have for their professional lives.