School Wars


Copied from the Guardian 8th September

By Melissa Benn

On Friday Boris Johnson will officially wield a large pair of scissors and no doubt a pile of well chosen Latin tags when he officially opens the West London Free School. It may be accident rather than strategy that WLFS, the brainchild of the journalist Toby Young and the most famous free school in the land, is one of the last to open. But it brings to an end a week of unprecedented and largely uncritical publicity for free schools, skilfully orchestrated by the government and its key ally, the New Schools Network.

As thousands of schools open up again for the autumn term, the attention of the country’s media has been riveted on a tiny handful of primaries and secondaries, most of which have yet to complete a week of teaching, deal with a truculent child or publish a single exam result. Yet you could be forgiven for believing that these 24 startups are already the solution to all our educational problems.

There’s certainly diversity in the free school model, if some odd class politics: soldiers to teach the feral underclass; meditation skills for the heavy breathers. Peter Hyman, Blair’s former speechwriter turned teacher and the coalition’s most high-profile convert yet, plans to open a non-selective, all-ability, innovative comprehensive in the East End of London in 2012; while Sajid Hussain, the Oxford-educated son of a Kashmiri-born bus driver, hopes his King’s Science Academy in Bradford will enable students to navigate their way through the strange mores of the English elite.

Hussain has talked of how so many first-generation academic achievers like himself feel that “there is a club. The language – they can’t speak the language … there’s a level they can’t access.” I wonder what Hussain makes of a media insider like Toby Young, who has made no secret of his wish to create a faux private school out of taxpayers’ money. Young has written openly of his admiration for, and envy of, such figures as Johnson and David Cameron – whom he first encountered at Oxford – and his hopes that some of that bumptious, bottomless self-confidence will rub off on the pupils at his new school.

Like it or loathe it – and I loathe it – large sums are being ploughed into free schools; £130m has been laid out on capital costs already, and there is clearly more being spent that government won’t disclose. It has been estimated that there is now one civil servant per 30 children working on making free schools a success.

But despite much fulmination this week by the education secretary, Michael Gove, the schools have clearly failed their own self-set tests. Few among this first wave are truly parent-promoted projects, and nor are they likely to benefit the most deprived in our society. Instead this is an odd, hybrid movement that incorporates failing independent schools, diverse faith groups, and charitable educational groups.

Ark (Absolute Return for Kids) is just one of a number of powerful educational chains playing a key role in the second, and more substantive, part of the new school revolution – the speedy and shockingly undemocratic campaign led by government to persuade many of the country’s best schools to switch to academy status.

A few months ago I received a call on a Sunday night about plans to convert my old school – Holland Park comprehensive, in west London – to an academy. The decision was done and dusted by the following Thursday. This risibly short consultation period is typical of conversions around the country, leaving parent groups, school governors and local councillors angry and dismayed. To add insult to injury, most of the new “converter” academies are also in affluent areas, unlike Labour’s original city academy project.

The new academies are being funded by top-slicing local authority budgets, handing disproportionately large sums of money to already advantaged schools. Meanwhile, many local schools are struggling to deal with the impact of budget cuts from every quarter. Last week it was predicted that there will soon be a terrifying £1bn black hole in local authority finances as a result of the government’s school policies, which councils are warning might lead to higher local taxes.

Remember: no one voted for these changes. The Liberal Democrats fought the 2010 election in explicit opposition to free schools and academy plans. Now it almost feels too late, and certainly an almighty mess. The mass advent of free schools and academies – the “independent state school” model – will add another unnecessary and opaque tier to an already overcomplex and unequal state system. It will encourage a new kind of snobbery, and subtle segregation within the state sector, with ambitious parents keen to feel the private school effect. Free schools and academies enjoy a range of greater freedoms that will help them to pull ahead in the new competitive schools market.

But what if the new schools fail, or push old ones to close? Will there be enough civil servants to deal with problems that arise within those academies that go it alone, cut off from the local authority family of schools? And do parents really want to see more faith-based or charitable chains that cannot be challenged except through the secretary of state?

Education is a common and public endeavour that should bring our children together, not further divide them. Call it what you will – comprehensive, multilateral or simply fair and efficient – some of the most successful school systems in the world are based on the non-selective, neighbourhood principle. Get the basic structure right and you can offer far greater innovation and freedom within the classroom.

The final irony may be that parents flood back to local schools as the increasingly unattractive values of niche marketing, social snobbery and religious interests begin to take hold. Broad-based secular comprehensives that draw in families across the class, faith and ethnic spectrum, entirely free of private control, could hold a new appeal.

And who knows? Sensitive, clever men like Sajid Hussain might one day realise it is not possible to crack the codes of the elite while other forms of privileged education flourish, completely unaddressed.

There is also an extended interview with Melissa Benn here The New Schools Revolution

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