Free Schools: A gimmick for parents and politicians who don’t understand education

by Ray_North on October 22, 2013

imagesI have always been angry about education. I loved my school you see. A proper comprehensive, complete with weirdos and bullies and rituals and the odd star and its own particular ethos. There was a Private School a few miles away – we’d play rugby against them. You had to drive up a long tree-lined drive to get there, there were gardens surrounding the front of the school that had been built in the 17th Century, and Christ the pitches, they had the most fantastic pitches, to us it was like playing at Wembley. And the kids all looked the same and spoke the same and, oddly, had the same hair.

We would turn up and fight them for eighty minutes and go back to our own school that was situated on an estate, by some gas-tanks (they knocked it down a few years ago and turned it into an Asda).

And I would think to myself – hold on, there’s something not quite right about this, why should these kids, who were just kids like us, have all these facilities and all this privilege and we have to make do with less. And the answer is simple – it’s because their parents didn’t want them mixing with the likes of us. It would hinder their chances. That is what they think. It is why they will pay large amounts of money to get their kids away from state education. Well, I’m glad my parents had enough confidence in me to send me to the school by the gas tanks.

But, this desire by some to take their children away from those who they perceive to be inferior, prevails to this day, indeed, not only does it prevail it grows stronger. And, let’s face it, is the prime motivating force behind Free Schools. All this, I want a looser syllabus, bollox; I want more parental control, bollox; I want to free our school from the shackles of the local authority – more bollox – the parents who campaign for these types of schools are motivated by entirely flawed view of how education should work and, more often than not, a belief that their kid will do better in a school away from their current peers – and they want to do this with state money.

One of the most depressing things I heard in the last couple of weeks, was the Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, suddenly, become all mealy-mouthed on the subject of Free Schools. Labour should be opposed to them without any hesitation or reservation. Why? Because, just like the continued existence of Private Schools, the growing number of Free Schools, actually undermines the proper and legitimate aim of having a well educated nation.

The argument in favour of Free Schools doesn’t stack up.

Those in favour argue that there is a falling standard of teaching and suggest that this can be addressed by allowing Free Schools to appoint non-qualified people to be teachers. Yep, that is as ludicrous as it sounds, and has been exposed as such by the recent travails of two headteachers of Free Schools, Annaliese Briggs in Pimlico and Susan Rankin-Reid neither of whom had any qualifications or experience, and both have had to resign pretty quickly, once their unsuitability was exposed.

Teaching is simply too important to be left to worthy and willing amateurs.

Mrs North is currently training to be a teacher, she is, to put it politely working her socks off to pass the course, it is not a cushy number, it is not for those ‘who can’t’ – it is an extremely demanding course that helps to empower students with the ability to cope in the challenging environment of the classroom, before they gain the experience that is necessary to become a great teacher. Parents and politicians who think that anyone can do it are not just mad, they are dangerous, because that way of thinking will lead to an erosion in the standards of our nation’s teachers – I mean you wouldn’t want a surgeon looking after you, because he was a good bloke who knew a bit about the human body, or a lawyer representing you in Court because he liked a good argument – like these comparable professions, we should encourage our teachers to be trained to the highest standards and we should respect their qualifications and endeavours.

The Free Schoolers also argue that they are better off without Local Authority interference. That’s ludicrous – it is a lame argument that could only be proffered by someone with no experience of state education. At my boys school, the Local Authority, as well as funding the schools, take a close eye on the results of all schools in the area, offer assistance with regards to best practice and innovation, offer funding when they can, to improve the infrastructure to ensure that all schools are pretty much equal in terms of what they can offer, and lead the way in terms of what they expect the local children to attain. They also monitor the social demographic of the school and factor that in. There are no league tables, but the Headteacher and the governors know exactly where the school is succeeding and where it needs to do better. The information is available to parents – though in reality very few bother to look at it, but if they did, and if they weren’t happy, then it would be open for them, certainly in my boy’s school, and I’m sure most others, to take it up with the Headteacher, or the local authority and agitate for an improvement – just as long as they trust that the professionals are up to it. That’s the rational response – take your kids out and build your own school and man it with non-qualified teacher, that’s an illogical response – how on earth do you know that that untested new Free School is going to be any good? You don’t. But, let’s face it, the parents who do that aren’t interested in logical responses, or proper improvements, they are more interested in taking their kids away from those who they see as being inferior to their own.

Which is another argument put forward by those who advocate Free Schools – the argument that the school should be able to control its own admissions policy. Well, just have a look at the Free School in Bradford who wanted a school for Muslim children and has been described as being woeful and inadequate by OFSTED – I don’t want young Muslim kids going to crap schools any more than I want young Catholic kids or Jewish kids or kids whose parents believe in absolutely nothing to go to crap schools; nor do I want these kids to be separated from one another at an early age. I want all children to grow up together regardless of their religion, colour, creed or parent’s wealth. Not just because I’m a liberal and have a nice notion of people getting on with eachother – but because it makes sense to educate everyone to a high standard, not just the richest kids, but all kids, because the sons and daughters of the wealthy aren’t necessarily those with the greatest aptitude for academia, and if we continue to fail to maximise the potential of all our children, then we will continue to watch our country decline.

Tristram Hunt said that Labour was ‘on the side of parents’ – well, if that’s true, then Labour should be extolling the values of professional properly qualified teachers and local education authorities where people who know about education are able to disseminate best practice and improve education for all children – they should also put at the heart of their policies, the principle that education is not about dividing children up according to their parents income or their parents misguided fears, but it is about providing an opportunity through education for all.

See I told you I was angry.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

George_East October 22, 2013 at 4:26 pm

I am waiting for the free hospitals set up by patients being allowed to employ unqualified surgeons.


Alx w October 22, 2013 at 5:30 pm

The government think there is a problem with local gvt oversight of education, well true there are some failing authorities, but surely that calls for a reform of local authority education bodies not creating some bizarre parallel system of free schools and academies in the name of parent choice. There is no way of really making the ‘correct’ choice for your kids, i know several people who have been damaged by their private school experience, others might flourish no doubt.


Fiona Phelan October 22, 2013 at 8:16 pm

The government doesn’t trust anyone to do their job, because one of the requirements is that you don’t question the government, many avenues of debate are being curtailed and dissension is being rubbished in the media. All public services are under the same cosh at the moment because we are the bête noir of those in power and those who want to preserve their privileges and advantages. The way that the vulnerable have been portrayed as the problem in terms of how much they cost the tax payer is sickening. The disingenuousness of our politicians is truly shocking, and the lack of evidence based policy being championed by anyone showing true leadership worries me greatly.

I am particularly persona non grata as I am a teacher, insultingly labelled part of ‘a blob’ portrayed as some rabid Marxist being led by the nose, by the Unions according to much of our press who we would really like to investigate the issues rather than peddle the governments’ myths for them. Free schools are exactly what you have said, and this addiction to testing and sorting kids into these enclaves is destroying comprehensive education.

Sorry to go on, but I have spent this evening in a dept meeting where the vast majority of the time was spent discussing data on kids progress and how they are under the national average. It is ludicrous as we are operating in a selective borough which still uses the 11+, which creams off many of the higher achieving kids to the Grammar schools. That is not to say that my school has low expectations, far from it and many of our pupils do very well. It’s just the fact that by the very nature of having selection we are going to be below the national average, that’s how averages work.

It is the inequality of our systems that so enrages me, and the callousness of the haves who seem to really believe that they are where they are through merit and hard work, that misplaced sense of entitlement and contempt for everyone else.

Teaching is a great job, with real social merit and I wish your wife well in her training but you are also correct in asserting it is not an easy option and much of the stress is driven from those at the top who have no idea about education or the value of comprehensive education.


Ray_North October 22, 2013 at 10:02 pm

Thank you Fiona,
I have nothing but sympathy for teachers and groan sympathetically, every time a politician utters more nonsense about education. Every teacher I know, just wants to teach, earn a proper wage and get on with their job.
The fact that those of us who perform a public service are held with such contempt is deeply depressing. Something has to change, but, I fear that their is little appetite for proper change amongst the people at large.
Good luck and thanks for your comment.


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