Athenians, Corinthians, Olympians and Spartans

by Alex Hern

Michael Gove at Conservative Party Conference
With September, and the beginning on the new school year, approaching, the media blitz around free schools is moving into its final stage. The Conservatives are proudly proclaiming the number of applications they’ve got, attention is being lavished on the first cohort to open, and Labour are briefing news that everyone’s always known (The NSN has Conservative leanings! So does David Cameron!). So I’m going to join in.

The rationale behind free schools – and academies before them –  has always been something along the lines of “less bureaucracy, something something, guiding ethos, something something, better results!” The first point is, of course, the standard claim of most people when looking at public sector areas they don’t understand. Bureaucracy must be bad! Look at how many people the NHS employs who aren’t doctors or nurses! This is wasted money!

Few seem to care that, even if it is true that the public sector must mimic the private sector (which is not self-evident), the vast majority of corporations are not lean, mean, single minded creation machines, but in fact have their own sprawling bureaucracies, because that is what is necessary if you are a national – or multi-national – entity. If you’re going to co-ordinate various branches, you need people who don’t work in those branches to do that. And if you’re not, then you waste a huge amount of time duplicating work.

So! We free the schools from the bureaucracy that’s tying them down – free them, in other words, to all have to spend time and money drawing up their own curricula, lesson plans, classroom materials, and all the other things which having a national level education system saves them from having to do – and their results improve? Well, only if they have a strong hand guiding them, apparently. This ethos, a theme around which the school can be built, which the staff and students all believe in wholeheartedly, can be anything. In Toby Young’s West London Free School, it’s Classics, but in most, it is one of two things. Either profit, or religion.

These show, at their heart, the twin motivations behind the free school movement. The former is obvious – the Coalition, and a large part of Labour before them, really do believe that the private sector is, simply by virtue of being private, better at whatever it tries to do than the public sector. It’s not going to shock anyone if I say that this isn’t true, but approaching it is for another day. Probably several.

The latter is more insidious, and cuts to the heart of the concept. Because whenever supporters are pushed on why they believe free schools, and academies before them, have better educational standards, they all point to the same thing – faith schools. These schools were the original “guiding ethos, not run by the LEA” bodies, and they are, indeed, disproportionately successful. But those two points are not the only difference between faith and state schools. Two others are equally important – improved funding, and selection by proxy.

It could be the case that free schools allow us to examine the value of ethos and freedom, cut loose from the obvious advantages of money and selection. Unfortunately, that doesn’t look like it’s going to be the case. If we come back in a year, and the schools get the same per-pupil funding, and have the same societal cross-section, as the local comprehensives which they are outperforming, but I find it highly unlikely that Etz-Chaim primary, or St Luke’s Church of England primary, will ever have as broad a selection of pupils as those which really have to take everyone. And if we’re back to the state were having a religion – or, just as commonly, having the nous to lie about your religion for the sake of your child – allows you access to the ‘real’ schools, then the fifteenth century called, and they’d like their education system back.

(The post title is, of course, the names of the houses in the West London Free School. Blech)