‘Free Schools’– The Way of the Future?
Ex ‘Dissolute’ Young Man Gets SeriousBy Tom Aitken in London
Several years ago, David Selves, Deputy Chairman of the London Press Club, author of a number of thrillers, passionate cricketer and pub landlord, instituted The LPC Quarterly Grill at which a figure currently in the news is entertained to lunch (a mixed grill, naturally) and is grilled by David, using questions submitted by members of the club.
The latest victim, at the Press House Bar, just off Fleet Street (once, of course, the centre of the London newspaper world) was Toby Young, a journalist who has led a group who wished to establish a ‘free school’ in West London.
The Coalition’s two schemes
Since coming to power, Britain’s coalition government and its Education Secretary, Michael Gove, have promoted two schemes designed to improve standards in schools and give them greater autonomy.
Both schemes, ‘academies’ (inherited from the preceding Labour government) and ‘free schools’, are publicly funded but are also permitted to attract money from sponsors.
‘Academies’ are existing schools, which have applied for, and been granted, the change in status. Frequently, new heads, not necessarily themselves teachers, are brought in to guide them towards higher academic aspirations and more effective use of financial and human resources.
Academies are required to work with at least one other school that is eager to improve.
The second scheme, ‘Free Schools’ are newly established institutions organized by groups of parents, teachers, charities, businesses, universities, trusts and religious or voluntary groups.
At the proposal stage both academies and free schools are subjected to ‘robust’ questioning about their motives, aims, and likelihood of success.
Schools control themselves
Both sorts of school are independent of local authorities and are able to control their curricula (provided these are broad-based), teachers’ pay and conditions, and the length of school terms and days.
The first free schools, 24 selected from the initial wave of 323 applicants, opened this month. Another eight are due next year.
Toby Young, as a twinkling retired journalist at my table remarked, is known for having built a career as a celebrity on a foundation of professional failure.
After a spectacularly undistinguished secondary education in several schools, he was given a place at Oxford by mistake. But in the event he achieved a first class degree and a Fulbright scholarship to Harvard. He briefly held junior teaching posts at both Oxford and Harvard.
‘A man for bouncing back’
A man for bouncing back then––a talent he has demonstrated again as a working journalist, playwright, author, and associate editor of The Spectator.
A periodical he jointly founded and edited in 1991after returning from Harvard lost lots of money and was acrimoniously closed down. Then he spent two further acrimonious years in New York working on Vanity Fair from which he was eventually sacked.
Young’s memoir of his time in New York, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People: The Sound of No Hands Clapping, was widely hailed as a comic triumph.
Until this point in his life, he was, by his own confession ‘fairly dissolute’ but things changed considerably when he married and became a father of four.
He set to work to make a career in London papers.
Marriage, children and another family factor (his father, Michael Young, was a moving spirit in the foundation of both the Open University and the University of the Third Age) lie behind his championship of the West London Free School, which is now up and running.
David Selves introduced Toby as ‘a shameless self-publicist the Guardian loves to loathe’.
The first question concerned teachers’ qualifications. It has been put about that teachers at free schools would not be required to have degrees, let alone the minimum second class ones which may be demanded for new entrants to the profession.
Young suggested that there was a confusion involved. Teachers in free schools were not required to have a PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate of Education) a qualification required by the state sector but not by public schools.
As it happened, however, all the heads of departments at West London held PCGEs, except the Classics man, who had come there from Radley, a distinguished public school.
There will be no shortage of degrees among staffs (This can be confirmed by going to the West London Free School Home Page and following the links.)
Are parents seeking cheap deal?
Another question quoted a journalist in the Independent who wrote that parents sending their children to free schools ‘want the equivalent of a private school intake without paying for it.’ Was this fair comment?
It is and it isn’t, Young contended. What they wanted was a school and a body of pupils focused on rigorous teaching and learning. Evidence so far suggested that was what they would get. There had been more than 100 well-qualified applicants for the post of Head Teacher at West London. Most had PGCEs.
What Young wanted was what Harold Wilson (a name that does not trip easily off his tongue) wanted: grammar schools for all.
Young said that critics of the state system of education argued, rightly, that whereas comprehensive education was supposed to unite the best features of the old Grammar Schools and Secondary Moderns, present day comprehensives were much more like rather poor secondary moderns, concentrating, at a low level, on so-called practical and skills-based learning.
He stated, vigorously, that learning Latin was good for people in all sorts of ways, making them think about language, logic and much else besides.) He feels equally strongly about literature, and (further to a recent piece by Janet Secker in KIN) Shakespeare will certainly be taught.
Young wants strictness
He also believes in strictness as to work and behaviour, in having a school uniform, divided the pupils into ‘houses’ (in West London’s case, Olympians, Spartans, Athenians and Corinthians) and in ‘setting’ where necessary.
These practices are regarded as reactionary and fuddy-duddy by many responsible for the administration of state-controlled schools. Young added waspishly that if people administering state schools actually sent their children to them, those schools would get very much better.
Given that number of parents wanting places for their children far exceeded availability selection was necessary. Young’s ultimate aim, however, is that good, rigorous education will become available to all.
He summed up, humorously, his aspiration for the social mix and academic aspiration of free schools as ‘Hogwarts meets Grange Hill’
Free schools have to find suitable premises. In West London they combed the area on bicycles. Young arrived for the LPC lunch clutching his folded up bike.
Asked if there would be sport at West London, he said the school offered hockey and netball. They all knew how to play football.
Fear there won’t be enough places
If free schools prove successful, will creation of more of them be able to keep up with demand? West London Free School has taken in 120 pupils and there is a fear that Free Schools will not be able to supply the desired number of places for many years to come.
This is only one of many questions to which Toby Young and others like him will have to find answers.
At the moment he seems undaunted. Journalists, he concluded by saying, typically sit with the generals, watching the battle from positions of relative safety. He has decided to join the battle.
The research appears to show that the “Free schools” approach may not actually work.
It found ……
“A report said the schools – set up and run by parents, teachers, charities and voluntary groups – benefited children from highly-educated families more than those from the poorest backgrounds.
The study said any advantages gained by pupils attending free schools in Sweden failed to translate into “greater educational success” beyond the age of 16. ”
Lets stick to QPE (Quality Public Education) principles.