“So you’re on our side, are you, Francis?” Toby Young said to me in the sunlit garden of the headmaster’s lodge at Wellington College, which is hosting The Sunday Times Education Festival. It was the first time I’d met him face-to-face, although he and I have been corresponding through blogs and emails for some time. Toby has been following the debate on the site about my decision to support my local secondary school for Academy status and seemed to indicate that this meant I was pro-Free Schools now. I’m not sure this necessarily follows. FYI: I am not about to set up a Free School in opposition to my local school! I’m trying to support it as best I can to improve and deal with the difficult situation it’s in (see previous posts on this).
I said that I did hope to find common ground with Toby and the Free Schoolers, but that ultimately, I believed that co-operation between schools was the best way forward. Needless to say, I was a somewhat lone voice at that point in the Headmaster’s garden because I was surrounded by some fairly "right-wing" characters: Joel Klein who set up New York charter schools, Rachel Wolf of the New Schools Network, the ex-High Master of St Pauls and a host of businessmen (yes, largely men) wanting to offer their services to schools. The only remotely left-wing people were me (well, some would dispute that I am!) and Adrian Elliott, ex-headteacher, inspector and author. Hardly, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Later on, the inimitable Francis Beckett turned up and told me that we were the “token lefties”; and I felt he had a point. A cynic might say we’d been given little “bit parts” to spice up what really amounted to a constant stream of eulogies about the private sector.
At my event, Independent or Maintained: What is the Future of Schools?
, Toby Young did his normal cut and paste job with various statistics, telling us what a terrible job state school teachers are doing and how marvelous private schools are. Rachel Wolf was a little more varied; she tried to say that free schools were serving poor students (in response to my citation of the Channel 4 Fact Check’s finding that only 2 of the free schools actually serve deprived students) and that schools needed to be closed down if they failed.
Adrian Elliott was very good at defending the record of Local Authority schools, pointing out that 90% of parents according to Ofsted are happy with them, and that, by and large, they are doing a good job. He made the crucial point: who actually helps out Free Schools if there’s a fire or a major crisis? He recollected always have a great deal of help from his LA when he was headteacher if there was a crisis. I gave a talk about the perils of social segregation and the high costs of Free Schools.
For me, the questions that Rachel and Toby just couldn’t answer properly were:
- The capital cost of free schools, which according to the Telegraph could amount to as much as 1 billion, when existing schools are facing a huge repair bill.
- The lack of accountability and where these schools turn to if the Free Schools go wrong. Neither of them suggested central government would be ready to rescue schools in difficulties.
- The social segregation caused by faith and special interest groups setting up more schools and "creaming off" children with specific backgrounds.
My regret is that Adrian and I didn’t have a chance to discuss the nuts and bolts of teaching – something that far too few free schoolers actually have experience of. There seems to be the naïve belief that if a group wants to set up a school and they’re very keen, then everything will be hunky dory even if they’re completely inexperienced and untrained. Well, we will have to see. It’s not easy running a successful school, particularly if it has a challenging intake.
The final question to the panel was about whether faith groups should be able to set up schools. Rachel and Toby were both quite keen. Adrian was a bit ambivalent because he’d been the head of a Catholic school. But I am unequivocal: we have storing up so many more social problems for ourselves if have schools that full of particular faith groups. You only have to look at Oldham, at Northern Ireland, to see what happens when our children do not get to know other children from different backgrounds. We already have segregated schools, but the Free Schools policy, if not regulated very carefully, is going to make things far, far worse. The consequences of it are potentially disastrous.