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Free Schools: A blessing or a curse?

Since the coalition government came into power, Education Secretary Michael Gove has used political measures usually reserved for emergency situations to push through the Conservative plan for privately controlled academies or ‘free schools’ at breakneck speed. Gove has responded to critics of his hasty techniques by claiming that Britain is falling behind its international competitors as a result of a broken education system which sees “thick rich kids” achieve better results than their “clever, poorer” peers, justifying quickly executed measures.

But just what exactly will these new ‘free schools’ mean for our education system, and will they prove to be a blessing, or a curse? The system has already attracted a huge amount of controversy, with a great number of potentially serious problems associated with it and incredibly vociferous campaigners arguing both for and against its implementation.

In favour of free schools

The arguments in favour of the free schools scheme centre around the fact that the schools will be run by a steering committee formed of parents and teachers, and will operate outside the jurisdiction of the Local Education Authority, although they will still be state funded.

Those backing the plan suggest that this will free the schools from endless red tape, bureaucracy and national standardised protocols, allowing those who really have the children’s best interests at heart the freedom and control to shape the schools to really perform for the specific children attending them. This fits into Cameron’s plan for a ‘big society’, where individuals take more responsibility for local facilities and the government adopts a more hands-off attitude, allowing parents to have more control themselves over the measures in place to guide and protect their children.

The suggestion is that the free schools will promote a fiercely competitive atmosphere in which independent groups will work hard to present a private school-type academy with individually determined rules, curriculums and programs, to compete with other state-funded institutions for pupils. It is suggested that this competition will promote an increase in the standard of education as state schools are forced to improve to keep their pupils from defecting to a new ‘free school’.

Groups planning to set up free schools argue that the current system is failing too many pupils, and that after 60 years it is too late to try to fix the system from within: time, they believe, for a fresh approach.

The dangers of free schools

However there are a huge number of arguments against the implementation of Gove’s system, not least of which is that it seems like an oddly double-edged approach to concede that the current schools system is failing without scrapping it or suggesting measures to improve it. To introduce academies would make sense if the scheme were going to apply to all schools, but to allow them to exist as an ‘alternative’ system will leave current state schools in limbo.

With government money going to the new ‘free schools’, there will be less to go around for the important costs of new school buildings and teacher salaries elsewhere, resulting in an even further decline of the current state school system, argue protesters. The result, they say, is likely to be a decline in state school standards, with demand for academy places rocketing above supply, culminating in the emergence of a two-tier state school system where the standard of education received by pupils in the different types of institution is radically polarised.

Furthermore, those protesting against the scheme argue that it is madness to happily throw state money, so desperately needed and in such short supply within the education system already, willy-nilly at anybody who stands up and thinks they have a good idea for a school system. The groups setting up these new ‘free schools’ are mostly made up of parents and teachers disgruntled with the current system, but not necessarily with any experience whatsoever of the relevant skills and knowledge for running a school.

As one angry dissenter put it, “why should I pay tax for…a rag bag of pushy parents and egotistical teachers…to play at schools?” Especially when the money provided for these establishments will be siphoned off the much-needed and already over-strained resources of the state education system. Another fair question to ask is how committed the parents who set up these first ‘free schools’ will remain to the system and their role in maintaining it once their own children have left education.

Perhaps the most worrying objection of all to the ‘free schools’ system is the argument that the lack of state control will enable extremist groups and radically religious sects to set up schools indoctrinating children with their ideology. Or that, on a less extreme level, groups of any kind will be able to use the ‘free schools’ to promote their own agenda rather than focusing on education. Gove announced that Richard Dawkins is interested in setting up an atheist ‘free school’, and it has also emerged that 16 Steiner Waldorf schools have applied for the title. The Steiner philosophy, a cult-like group which has drawn comparisons with scientology, teaches that human evolution began on a made-up continent called ‘Lemuria’, where human development was progressed and hindered by good and evil spirits.

It is certainly not difficult to understand why the possibility of such groups projecting their own beliefs and agendas onto children’s development and education has raised a great deal of concern amongst parents and other members of society alike.

What’s the rush?

Above all it seems to me that there is a huge amount to discuss and consider on both sides of this equation. While the arguments in support of the new system are quite understandable and may have merit, the concerns being raised are many and serious. So the most obvious question of all must be: why on earth is Michael Gove rushing this legislation so quickly into being, when there remain so many concerns and question marks surrounding it?

Surely the proposal of so extreme a measure with so many complications and implications is one that should be carefully and roundly considered and debated before becoming a reality for our children.

Do you think ‘free schools’ would be a blessing or a curse? Let us know your thoughts below.

  • Nicola Hartley

    This sounds like an extremely dodgy idea to me. What on earth kind of government effectively says ‘oh no, the state school system isn’t working very well. Shall we try to fix it? No lets just leave it stumbling along, take away some of its funding and allow anyone who thinks they can do better to take a bunch of money even if they have no idea what they’re talking about. And while we’re at it, lets give them loads of control so that we don’t have the right to control the ideology they’re teaching in these new institutions.

    Just the kind of crazy idea the new split government seems to be coming up with all over the place. Why on earth not just use the money to make improvements to the already struggling state school system?

  • William

    Isn’t it obvious why Gove is trying to rush this scheme through quickly using special measures? He can’t believe his luck that right now the whole country is totally up in arms over tuition fees and university funding so nobody has had a chance to scrutinise his crazy three wheeled plan too closely – take my word for it, he wants to jam it through before people have the chance to look at it too closely – it’s absolutely ridiculous that he should be able to get away with this, what a completely utterly crazy idea. It’s got more holes in it than my nan’s knitted christmas jumpers.

  • Freddie F

    I don’t know that it is such a terrifying idea actually – in many ways although everybody is claiming it will damage and hurt the state school system, there have only been 25 of these schools approved so far, and so I think it could still be a boost to force state schools to improve by comparison.

    It will mean that headteachers and teachers who have been forced to stand by and see national rules implemented across the board which aren’t right for their particular schools in their particular areas, will finally have their hands untied and be able to bring in the changes necessary to make their schools successful.

  • Ben

    I think everybody is missing a very important point here.

    These free schools will not all be new schools set up to compete with and steal pupils and money from state schools. It is also allowed for any school that wants to in the country to apply for free school status. So any state school where the teachers are unhappy with how things are being done or the head thinks they could do better with their own ideas and maybe some parental involvement, can apply for free school status and keep their state funding – isn’t that surely a positive thing if it’s true that those are the main problems?

  • Nicola Hartley

    But Ben, what happens if every state school in the country applies for free school status? Nobody seems to have thought through any of the real issues surrounding this plan, mostly because Gove seems to be shoving it through without giving it the proper chance to be debated and fine-tuned first.

    it just seems like there are a lot of very wooly ideas and potential problems which have been left open ended.

  • Ayamala Samina

    It seems to me that the most important thing of all is the safety and security of the children.

    I doubt these measures would have been put in place without strict guidelines for the children’s safety and wellbeing even if the schools do have a bit more control over the curriculum etc.

    Does anybody think it is unfair that the state system is paying for these schools though? I think that is the biggest problem – why not say that anyone can open their own private academy without strict state regulationi if they want to, but they have to raise their own funds?

    These are essentially going to be like posh private schools but funded by state money – not very fair for just a few state pupils to have that opportunity when there won’t be nearly enough spaces for all of them…

  • Elizabeth A

    I totally agree with Nicola – this sounds like a crazy half baked idea that totally hasn’t been thought through – Gove is crazy, who has let this idea get as far as being put into practice?

  • Winston

    I really think everybody needs to chill out about this – it’s ONLY A FEW SCHOOLS guys! It’s not going to fundamentally change our education system or have a devastating impact on state schools, its just going to shut up a few patronising know it alls who’ve been going on for years about how they could do a better job – I say let them get on with it, let them realise that it’s no picnic trying to run a school any better than they’re already doing, and let them slink away with their tails between their legs in a few years time when I bet anything 90% of those ‘free schools’ will have closed or failed.

  • Isabel

    Why don’t these people just home school their children?

    Being unsatisfied with state education seems fair enough but starting an entire new competitor school seems like quite an extreme reaction.

    If you’re not happy with the system you shouldn’t be given so much state money to have a crack at it yourself which wouldn’t necessarily be any better and would almost certainly be biased to cater for the needs and expectations of the offspring of the people setting it up. They should just be allowed to go and home school children if they really think they can do so much better – thousands of families do it successfully already.

  • Yollie

    Everybody on these comments seems to be up in arms about the impact of these things on the education system as a whole and taxpayers and politicians and things, but what will the impact be on the teachers and also on the children themselves who will actually attend these schools?

    If it is correct that they will be quite experimental and they will be allowed to set their own curriculum and also that they might fold relatively quickly you have to spare a thought for the poor teachers who will be getting jobs there – they will have to teach a whole new curriculum, with whole new rules and they may not even keep their jobs very long anyway!!!

    And what about the children too – if the curriculum can be decided by the individual school surely that will be detrimental when they go on to higher education or taking exams at national level as they will be on a different page with different knowledge to everyone else.

  • Arnie

    Yes I agree with you Yollie

    I don’t think institutions like universities will be likely to look very highly on candidates coming from these schools, especially in the early days, so it sounds to me like it would be fairly damaging all round for anyone to send their children there!

    Not to mention the teasing from other kids – will these be seen as state or private schools? Will they be teased for being posh, or weird or different?

    - Arnold Beckett

  • Alex

    Freddie F: “I don’t know that it is such a terrifying idea actually – in many ways although everybody is claiming it will damage and hurt the state school system, there have only been 25 of these schools approved so far”

    Yes Freddie but do you know how much of a budget just one school will demand to set up and build? These are 25 NEW school, so we aren’t just talking about the same budget that 25 state schools would use in a year, we’re talking about the price of actually BUILDING 25 new schools – millions of pounds that would otherwise be going to existing state schools- how are they going to cope with so much less money?

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