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.