Friday, 24 June 2011

Remember, these are NOT free schools

The debate over the government's proposed "free schools" continues to rumble on, and Toby Young is amongst those bellyaching that the education of children still can't be done on a for-profit basis. Though about universities, his recent cringe worthy piece on the BBC's This Week shows how ridiculous the hyperbole over education from the right has become.

Specifically on the "free schools" front, it continues to grate that he and others use that term, and make such noise about being "free of state control." He described A C Grayling's New College venture as "preserving academic freedom" and called his opponents "prisoners of a bankrupt ideology whereas we are free thinkers." But, of course, his use of the word freedom is the right's use of the word freedom - specifically, meaning liberty for the proprietors and the masters rather than those who may toil below them.

If we need proof of this, we need only look at the vision of his West London Free School. "Compulsory Latin" is part of their "classical curriculum," there being no suggesting that lessons will be voluntary beyond the "options" that all schools offer. There is "firm discipline," with certain "habits of mind" being "reinforced by staff" on the basis of competition and incentives.

None of that looks particularly revolutionary or libertarian to me. If anything, it's quite pedestrian. But then, for the Toby Youngs of this world, the "silent revolution" is being made for the owners. Terms like "autonomy" and "self-governing" meaning only that the school board doesn't have to answer to the state.

Compare that with the genuine free school of Summerhill. All lessons are optional. All decisions taken democratically at The Meeting, in which the pupils have equal voting rights to the teachers. More than that, "a member of staff has no sanctions against a pupil that the pupil does not have against the member of staff - and that a teacher bringing a case against a pupil is neither more nor less likely to succeed just because of the relative status of the people involved."

Unlike the West London Free School, Summerhill's policies are genuinely revolutionary;
1. To provide choices and opportunities that allow children to develop at their own pace and to follow their own interests.
Summerhill does not aim to produce specific types of young people, with specific, assessed skills or knowledge, but aims to provide an environment in which children can define who they are and what they want to be.

2. To allow children to be free from compulsory or imposed assessment, allowing them to develop their own goals and sense of achievement. Children should be free from the pressure to conform to artificial standards of success based on predominant theories of child learning and academic achievement.

3. To allow children to be completely free to play as much as they like.
Creative and imaginative play is an essential part of childhood and development. Spontaneous, natural play should not be undermined or redirected by adults into a "learning experience" for children. Play belongs to the child.

4. To allow children to experience the full range of feelings free from the judgement and intervention of an adult.
Freedom to make decisions always involves risk and requires the possibility of negative outcomes. Apparently negative consequences such as boredom, stress, anger, disappointment and failure are a necessary part of individual development.

5. To allow children to live in a community that supports them and that they are responsible for; in which they have the freedom to be themselves, and have the power to change community life, through the democratic process.
All individuals create their own set of values based on the community within which they live. Summerhill is a community, which takes responsibility for itself. Problems are discussed All members of the community, adults and children, irrespective of age, are equal in terms of this process.
Nor is it alone, being part of the real free school movement - starting in Spain with Francisco Ferrer's Escuela Moderna. Based on community discipline, democracy, and genuine freedom - they are everything that education secretary Michael Gove's policy is not.

This is not the first time I've made the above argument, but as the debate lumbers on I feel the need to labour the point. Mainstream opponents of the current reforms are starting from an essentially conservative position, looking to preserve the status quo. This essentially frames the debate in the right's favour, painting them as radicals. They are not. It is important to emphasise that there are other ways that education can be radically transformed - and the schools Gove and Young are championing are not free schools.