Today, Education Secretary Michael Gove has unveiled details of the first 16 "free schools" set up under the coalition government's initiative. This is no doubt far less than Gove had hoped - "laughably" so, in Ed Balls' words - but it still sets a worrying precedent.
The selling point, of course, is "choice." It's the right's favourite buzzword for selling unaccountable private tyranny. And anybody who opposes it is a Stalinist control freak.
The educational establishment, an alliance of the teacher unions, Councils wishing to defend their school empires, Quangocrats and Department of Education civil servants, seem to take encouragement that they will be able to thwart any change.
They hope that they will be able to retain centralised control to ensure progressive orthodoxies in the classroom are followed. They want to retain control of what our children are taught and how they are taught.
These people are convinced that they know best and therefore that the threat of parent power must be averted. Often they are uncomfortable about any reference to ‘bad schools’ or ‘bad teachers’ - and are most reluctant to support the closure of a school for having poor exam results or being half empty.
Yet they are all too keen for grammar schools, church schools or independent schools to shut down - it seems the more successful a school, the more they despise it. Even when a school remains non-selective and state-owned there is hostility when it gains Academy status - because of the modest degree of independence from bureaucratic conformity.
There is a degree of truth buried in the rhetoric. The education system, as it stands, is far from perfect, and there are some worthwhile criticisms to be made.
The rigid and centralised National Curriculum is restrictive to creativity, training children to be human resources ready for sale on the labour market. Education is shaped by ideology - though a capitalist one rather than an ill-defined "politically correct/cultural Marxist" one as the right would insist.
This is not to mention that through catchment areas and the disparity in funding between the privileged and deprived, the state school system reinforces the class system and stagnates social mobility.
It is a strawman to suggest that, if you want to bring about change in some area, all those who oppose you are wedded to the status quo. But it is a strawman the right cling to for dear life.
As this overtly ideological article for the Spectator shows, the National Union of Teachers' campaign on this issue has been caught by the strawman;
Any head teacher of a school trying to free itself from state control will have had no summer holiday this year. In the weeks since Michael Gove introduced a law allowing top-rated schools to break free from local authority control, trade unions have been on the hunt for anyone daring to express interest in this offer. Heads have been sent letters, demanding they reveal their intentions. Those who do not reply are told they had better prepare for a battle. A secret war which will decide the future of English education is underway.
The National Union of Teachers wants to seek out and bully into submission any school thinking of becoming ‘free’ (which means becoming an ‘Academy’, thereby remaining in the state sector but free from local authority rules). ‘Free schools’ or academies will be allowed to expand and compete with other schools; they’ll be free to poach good teachers and (whisper it) sack bad ones. As the NUT knows, this is a threat to the current system, in which exceptional teachers are often poorly paid, and only 18 bad teachers have been struck off for incompetence in the last four decades. The NUT’s mission is to stop schools taking up Gove’s offer, as laid out in the Academies Act. Its methods, you might think, are sheer thuggery.
Take, for example, Mrs Y, a headmistress in a predominantly black inner-city school. She was ‘outed’ when Gove’s department released names of schools interested in applying for independent status. She received a letter by an official from the National Union of Teachers, angry that she had not revealed her plans earlier. A copy of their exchange has been seen by The Spectator. ‘I knew we would find out very soon,’ she was told. ‘This fundamental attack on state schools, held democratically accountable through local authorities, apparently means very little to you.’
‘We are absolutely not seeking a conflict,’ the letter continued. ‘Nontheless [sic] we regard these proposals as a fundamental attack on state education and will, for the sake of our members and the children we teach, do everything we can to stop any school becoming an academy. And this includes industrial action and campaigning amongst the parents.’
The message could not be clearer. Unless the headmistress drops her plans, the NUT will try to organise a strike in her school. ‘Our members — your staff — wish for this unanimously agreed motion to be raised at the next Governors meeting. We will campaign with all at our disposal.’
Perhaps the authors of the article - Fraser Nelson and Ed Howker - need reminding of the definition of "thuggery." It is not, last I checked, using all available resources to mount a democratic campaign of protest.
But, when these schools enjoy their newly-found "freedom" such "frightening" and "thuggish" things as dissent and democracy will be of the past. Isn't "choice" grand?
In reality, the problem is that the Tories "free schools" are nothing of the sort. Though offered to private instead of state power, they are still bound by ideology and restrictive to the freedom and creativity of the people who really matter - the children.
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.
The question now becomes how, whilst making the argument for genuinely libertarian education, we can fight against what - small now - could become a tidal trend in the education sector.
The aim of such resistance should not only be to oppose the current reforms, but also make the argument for a move in the entirely opposite direction. That is, towards free schools as the term was originally intended. The tradition not of Cameron and Gove but of Francisco Ferrer and AS Neill.
Currently, our children are caught between state bureaucracy and private tyranny. For their sake - indeed, for the sake of the future - we need to organise and fight for the third alternative.