Sunday, 7 March 2010

Genuine educational freedom won't come from the Tories' "free schools"

In the section of their website dedicated to the subject, the Conservatives tell us that "the reason we have fallen behind is that schools are controlled by politicians and bureaucrats with the wrong ideas." In order to rectify that, the Telegraph reports, "parents, teachers, churches, charities and companies will be given the power to open their own schools" and "a new wave of “free schools” will be allowed to compete for pupils – funded by the taxpayer – as part of a plan to increase competition between schools and drive up standards."

Just as with the proposal for public sector "cooperatives," this is nothing more than destructive market fundamentalism couched in pseudo-libertarian rhetoric.

The idea of "free schools" is, in and of itself, a fantastic idea. However, there should be no illusion that genuine school freedom has anything to do with "competition" or the mythology of the "free" market. It is an idea rooted in anarchism, going back to the Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer, who set up progressive schools in defiance of an education system controlled by the church. His idea would ultimately inspire the Free Skool movement.

As K12 Academics explains;
Beyond schools that offer democratic reforms to the educational system, radical experiments in non-hierarchal education with anarchist roots have given rise to temporal and permanent free schools. They are often termed "free skools" to distinguish them from what supporters view as an oppressive and institutional educational industry. Temporal free skools offering skill-shares and training have become a regular part of large radical gatherings and actions. More permanent skools in cities large and small have popped up across North American offering a wide range of workshops, classes, and skill-shares.

These free skools are rooted in an anarchist tradition of collectivism, autonomy, and self-reliance, and feature informal, non-authoritarian learning outside of the monetary economy. From the Free Skool Santa Cruz web site: "More than just an opportunity to learn, we see Free Skool as a direct challenge to dominant institutions and hierarchical relationships. Part of creating a new world is resistance to the old one, to the relentless com modification of everything, including learning and the way we relate to each other."
Genuinely free schooling is nothing to do with the "freedom" of various institutions, many highly authoritarian and motivated by other factors aside from the welfare and education of children, to set up schools. It is about the freedom of children to determine their own path through the education system and engage in educational democracy.

I explain this concept in more depth in the Property is Theft! article "Education and child-rearing."

Returning to the point, this is not what the Conservatives are offering. They are offering freedom to parents, to businesses, and to the mystical power of the market and competition, but freedom for children is not on the agenda. A particular case in point is that the City Academies, born of the same ideas under the stewardship of Tony Blair, have become "a 'Trojan horse' for radical evangelicals." This not only means that reason is being expelled from the classroom, but that along with it the autonomy of students to mandate their own learning.

The "parents, teachers, churches, charities and companies" that the Tories want to give these new schools over to, and to whom Blair gave the Academies, have no precedent for radical libertarian ideas. The "free schools" they create will be "free" only for them, and education is bound to suffer. There needs to be a serious move towards a more libertarian education system, but that cannot be realised as long as genuine freedom for those being educated is sidelined in favour of passing autocratic control to the highest bidder.