I attended the seminar session last week introducing the new West London Free School. I went along intrigued to know how I would be convinced that this could possibly be a good idea, and was left feeling upset that such a policy is going ahead.
Yes, many parents will be impressed with the 'rigorous' idea of secondary education that the school offers, but even so there are so many questions left unanswered.
What about the local existing schools? Are they really under-subscribed? Are they really addressing the needs of the local area? What happened to a broad and balanced curriculum? Why should we pay for an experiment thought out by a particular group's idea of a good education? How is this democratic? What about everyone else??
Here are the thoughts of my Dad, who attended the event with me: "That Toby Young and Headmaster Designate Thomas Packer (formerly Headmaster at Teesside High School) chose the Hammersmith Lyric Theatre for their Open Event on 15th December seemed strangely appropriate. The theatrical presentation was ultimately rather like a London sales event for selling time-shares in Southern Spain with the principal difference that in my experience time-share salesmen usually have something material as well as aspirational to sell, which neither Young nor Packer had. The West London Free School has no school buildings, minimal staff apart from Principal Packer, so the barrels in its gun had no bullets - just talk. The final straw was that neither Young nor Packer would accept any questions from the audience.
For all the emphasis on old-time grammar school standards, Young himself was dressed more sloppily than one would expect for a tidily dressed front-line executive of such an exciting high profile new allegedly businesslike enterprise. The first impression was that he looked like a runner-up in a pre-beard Phil Mitchell lookalike competition. I went to a school which espoused many of the standards embraced by the West London Free School, and if I had been seen on- or off-site looking so untidy with my shirt top-button undone and my tie halfway round my neck like Jimmy Clitheroe then a prefect or teacher would have had my name in a little book promptly. As a parent I am a veteran of schools' open events and have heard many statements and promises, but on all previous occasions I had experienced proponents with school buildings and staff, as well as track-record. The salient differences 'advertised' by Young and Packer in comparison with a typical comprehensive comprised compulsory Latin, emphasis on the importance of grammar, emphasis on the importance of music, and long hours.
To go through these one by one, I have to say possibly surprisingly that I accept the importance of studying Latin in a grammar school. It has served me well in so many ways and I am grateful for my school drumming Latin into my consciousness. However, that the Lyric presentation included the byline "Nulli Secundis" bemused me because it is incorrect Latin and meaningless except to those who know Latin well enough to correct it for themselves. The expression is "Nulli Secundus" or even more properly "Nulli Secundus / Nulli Secunda" and means "second to none" - with the -us ending denoting masculine and the -a ending denoting feminine. Moving on, the importance of grammar is indeed valid for me as an aspiration as well. Ironically, within a spoken paragraph of espousing the importance of grammar, Toby Young had split his first infinitive in a fashion as aggravating to a grammar pedant as Captain Kirk's ambitions "to boldly go" on his exploration of the Universe. Principal Designate Packer went on to split at least four infinitives during his speech. Throughout the evening's projected laptop presentation there was a random inconsistent mishmash of upper-case and lower-case adjectives and nouns. In my own daily life I do not indulge myself as a Stephen Fry like pedant in grammatical matters, but since both Young and Packer set themselves up on a pedestal of correctness it is an impossibility to avoid making these observations.
Valuing music so highly is the mark of a fine school, and I applaud Young's and Packer's ambitions to prioritise the study of music and its execution. However to pile three forty minute pre-school early morning practice sessions compulsorily upon all performance students seems a little excessive. Getting a twelve or thirteen year old to practice his/her instrument regularly is a frustration for parents and teachers, but to drag little Johnny or little Sally into school before 8am at least three days each week means a very early start especially if one lives more than five miles away - and then the Young/Packer scheduled working day goes on until 5pm, or possibly later depending upon extra-curricular options. Such a long day will inevitably lead to several high and especially low points in concentration and enthusiasm.
During his presentation, Headmaster Thomas Packer spoke of the allegedly needless emphasis on studying ICT in other schools. This surprised me a great deal, not least because it conflicts with government policy. His argument was that a typical seven or eight year old already had ICT expertise superior to his own, so he could not teach them anything. This raised a laugh among parents in the audience and both these latter points may well be true, and are not news to many teachers struggling with computers. As a justification of non-delivery of essential teaching this demonstrates a shocking abrogation of responsibility and left me dumbfounded.
I left the Lyric Theatre with many unanswered questions, and also an awareness of many topics untouched by the presentation. A Trading Standards Authority officer would have had many thoughts about salesmen selling a product which does not exist - no buildings ... no staff ... what??? The question of funding was not directly relevant to the evening but never mentioned let alone outlined. It is my understanding that the West London Free School will obtain its budget at the expense of other schools in the vicinity (wherever that might turn out to be), principally because the Free School will not be providing new capacity for an overstretched educational service - it will be creaming off students and funding from existing fine schools. There was no detail of how the teachers and teaching would be answerable to parents and to the community.
For me this enterprise might be described as 'bricks without straw', but even that description would be misleading because at present it has neither straw nor bricks. The ambition to improve secondary education is highly laudable, and I was impressed with Headmaster Thomas Packer's passion. That his passion might have been applied more effectively in improving an existing school was an obvious conclusion. In my judgment the huge amount of money it is going to cost to build and staff a new (and nominally unnecessary) school would be better applied to improving existing schools in the neighbourhood, and/or in building a new school in a community elsewhere in need of the extra student places".