A friend of mine used to work for the Conservative party in opposition. He was unlucky enough to have the Schools policy brief when the Tories was going through one of their occasional traumas over whether to make the expansion of Grammar schools the cornerstone of Tory education policy. He bears a haunted look to this day. Whisper the word”grammar” in his vicinity and he gets as jumpy as a first former on Wedgie Wednesday.
This sort of thing used to happen regularly (Tory spats on grammar Schools, not Wedgie Wednesdays). On a separate occasion this resulted in a Conservative policy for schools that involved complete internal freedom for governing bodies to run their school how they liked, and, at the exact same time, a state mandated “Grammar stream” in every school.
I used to like this idea, as it involved pleasant images of young grammar streamers being forced into Public School style uniforms, forced to write at wooden desk complete with inkpots as begowned Latin masters wielded canes to keep them in line, with ruffians running riot outside. (My image of British Public Schools and their imitators are entirely based on Molesworth books).
I don’t remember the media making a point of the basic incompatibility between School freedom and mandated streaming at the time. Perhaps they just felt bad for the poor Tory wonks, forced to find some line between making the party happy and doing something that they thought would raise standards.
As to which was which: We haven’t heard much of state mandated grammar streams recently, have we?
I mention this ancient history because last week new Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg apparently ditched Labour’s opposition to Free Schools. Twigg told the Liverpool Daily Post that:
“On free schools, I am saying that we need to apply a set of tests, that we are not going to take an absolute policy of opposing them.”The tests should be: will the school raise standards for pupils and parents, will it contribute to a narrowing of the achievement gap between rich and poor, and what is the wider impact of that school?”
In other words, a school should be judged by its impact on standards, narrowing the achievement gap and the wider impact on the community. I suspect this last, rather vague phrase is code for if it damage other “good” schools in the area.
This clearly neo-con belief that we should judge schools on how well they improve standards and narrow the achievement gap between the rich and poor has naturally been attacked as a “surrender” by the left. The ever reliable Owen Jones wrote that he struggled to keep his lunch down while reading Toby Young celebrating crushing his enemies, seeing them driven before him, and hearing the lamentation of the Comment pages.
The real conflict is that Jones believes there is no chance at all that a Free School will raise standards or narrow educational achievement gaps (he points to Sweden for this, but ignores the US). Young on the other hand, suggests that the mere existence of a Free School will raise standards and lower attainment gaps. (“They will, of course” he airily says, writing of Twigg’s proposed test.)
Both of these positions are ludicrous.
Is it possible for free school to succeed in passing social value tests? Of course. We’re already seeing Academies do just that, and the only fundamental difference is the wellspring for the creation of the school.
If we “oppose” free Schools, we are opposing one of two things – either the ability for parents to start a school, or the ability of a school to effectively govern itself. Since the latter has been party policy for years now, and appears to be working to increase achievement among the poorest, then effectively a blanket opposition to Free Schools simply means saying that non-state actors must be excluded from setting up schools. Unless they happen to be religious.
In any case what does “opposing” free schools actually mean? If they met the tests Twigg outlined then closing them would be obviously idiotic. Preventing new Free Schools from opening? Again, it seems irrational to say “we have evidence that Free schools can raise standards, lower attainment gaps and not damage the wider community. So we’re going to stop you from opening any.”
If Jones is right, and Free Schools can only do harm, he has nothing to fear from Twigg’s tests other than a slight delay in justification of his own foresight.
Equally, it’s entirely possible that such a Free School could have a negative social impact. Despite Toby Young’s fond hopes, it is not written in the stars that his free school, or any other, will automatically be a success in lowering achievement gaps, raising standards and contributing to the community.
The evidence is in Young’s own passion for a certain type of education. Young wants Latin, uniforms, discipline and a classical education. Does the Toby Young who thinks these are so important also believe that the Steiner free Schools, which to the untrained eye represent exactly the kind of “progressive” education he despises, will raise standards by the same degree merely by dint of being free schools? Or does he think there’s a chance, however small, they could be a total bloody disaster? If it’s the former, why is he so keen on expensive uniforms and discipline? If it’s the latter, he must surely concede that the state has a role to play in ensuring that free schools meet the laudable aims Twigg outlines, if only to prevent those Steiner lunatics running mad with taxpayer cash to deleterious effect?
So, in my view Twigg’s tests are a sensible, intelligent way of evaluating what is, in effect, an experiment.
It should satisfy both those who believe that no Free School could ever succeed, and those who believe they will automatically succeed, for both should feel they have nothing to fear from such a judgement.
But there’s one last point I want to make. It’s simple. In this country we have independent schools, religious schools, Academies, specialist schools, free Schools, grammar schools, secondary moderns, and comprehensives. These will soon be joined by UTCs.
With that huge variety of schools, any left of centre analysis of education that sees Free schools as the big problem, when they represent a mere fraction of the various ways education is delivered, is mistaking the process for the challenge. This is precisely the same mistake the Tories made over grammar schools, finding themselves again and again drawn into the cul -de-sac of an argument over whether a non selective system could deliver good education, when patently the answer was that some did and some didn’t and the reasons for success and failure were far more complex than the application of a test at a certain age.
It’s entirely likely that Free Schools will succeed or fail for reasons not within the control of any government. The vision of a head, the brilliance of a teacher, the willingness to open up the school to others, the way discipline is maintained, the resources available and the efficiency with which they’re used. the firmness of a governing body in ensuring wide access. All of these will be factors. Not I, nor Toby Young, nor Owen Jones, nor Stephen Twigg can know for certain what will happen at any of these schools.
In that case, the only sensible option for an opposition is to wish the children attending well, set out the way the schools will be judged if we were in power, and wait and see. Any other strategy means adopting the empty posture of either a Young or a Jones.