Free Schools, eh? Fearless campaigners such as Toby 'Captain SpudULike' Young, armed only with a massive bubble of self-publicity, a BBC show, a Spectator column and a blog at the Telegraph, overturning the tables in the temples of the liberal education elite with their mixture of old-school self-reliance and gung-ho enthusiasm. Boldly going where no local authority would dare go, fuelled by their unquenching desire to create a cargo-cult 1950s where every child is up at the crack of dawn to practice the violin before settling down to a couple of hours of mind-stretching Latin grammar. Enough to gladden the hearts of the nostalgia-biased everywhere. So why, chirps up this grotty comprehensively educated leftie, do Free Schools apparently require a hefty leg-up from Tory councils at exactly the same time as those same councils are preaching about waste and cutting expenditure, including on their existing education responsibilities?
1) West London Free School, Somewhere In London
The story is well known now - Acton 'personality' Toby Young gets it into his head that he wants the state to pay for private education for his kids and uses his influence in the kind of infantile circle-jerk world that passes for the journalistic elite of the age (seriously, read this and this and this and tell me you want him anywhere near your children. I'd rather have Fred West as a Headmaster, at least he had a worthwhile trade) to arrange for this to happen. Strategically blowing smoke up the right arsehole doesn't hurt either. Bingo - millions in public funding and subsidy come flying your way.
The only fly in the ointment is that despite gallons of wine being drunk in the designer kitchens of Acton and miles of pavements being pounded across his home borough of Ealing by the A-Z wielding Free School crew, there's no site or building or staff or anything recognisable as a school, which rather puts a strain on the self-inflating qualities of even such a master of hot air production as Toby Young. Worse, the Conservative council in Ealing was badly beaten in the May 2010 local elections and the incoming Labour administration (as well as the principled local Lib Dems, who have an outpost in the south of the area) is fairly hostile [DOC] to the whole idea. This could be because, in a typical Goveian flourish, £500k of the Free School money pot was taken off Ealing's own grant in addition to the Gove-instigated stop/go/cut mess around BSF for the urgently needed capacity increase for the borough's secondary schools. This, I suspect, is not an isolated example and is likely to mean a lot of non-hard-right local authorities will take a jaundiced view of Free School projects. Cuckoos in the nest, laid by interfering Whitehall mandarins.
Ealing, having met with Toby's crew, seem rather dubious about the whole idea on curriculum grounds, too:
The group would like the specialism to be Classics, which is currently not permitted. If this were not allowed, they would like it to be Music. We understand that vocational subjects would not be offered.
Specialist schools are committed to working across schools within the borough. Ealing already has a successful music specialist school and two schools specialising in Humanities. The gap in specialist provision in the borough is in Engineering.
We're immediately getting a clash of priorities here - Ealing clearly see their duty to promote choice as implying provision of a variety of specialisms. The WLFS mob are fixated on Latin or Music - their definition of 'free' is clearly understood as meaning that they don't have to have regard to existing provision in the local authority. Since the duty to promote choice and the freedom to set your own curriculum *both come from the DfE* this appears to be another example of Gove throwing the entire education system up in the air and calling the resulting mess a brave new world of freedom (shades of Donald Rumsfeld, there, and that turned out well).
Technically Gove could refuse to approve the WLFS on the grounds that there's no demand for another Music specialised school in a borough with an existing Music specialised school, but if you can really see him backing a Labour local authority over his own public champion I've got twenty million pounds I need your help with getting out of a war torn African republic.
In the end Toby and co. found the obvious third way - if the cap doesn't fit, find another cap. In this case popping over the border into Hammersmith & Fulham, where the local authority is much more receptive, offering not one but two premises, while with pleasing symmetry they're evicting or cutting existing social provision, plus of course offering an address at the Town Hall for the WLFS squad through which to advertise for job applications.
Nothing's too good for the golden boy here, it seems, yet despite his powerful friends he's still troubled enough by the activities of the Local Schools Network to start in with the bully pulpit. Now, the LSN (prop. Fiona Millar, aka. Mrs. Alistair Campbell) have admittedly not been backward in coming forward with criticisms, but bullying? Come on, Toby, man up. Generally when a thin-skinned right-wing loudmouth starts smearing his enemies as a bunch of loony left Marxists and complaining about them as if he's being haunted by the ghost of the ILEA it's a good sign that they're getting their points across well. It's also a bit rich coming from someone who complains that the local high school 'indoctrinates' pupils, yet relies on the good offices of a borough whose local propaganda sheet proclaiming the good news to the proletariat was considered a step too far even for Eric Pickles.
2) Bolingbroke Academy, Wandsworth
This one's been bubbling under for a while, but is in some ways even more blatant an example of the breed than Toby's lot. Wandsworth, of course, has been a flagship low tax Tory borough since poll tax days, and the Free School proposal for the old Bolingbroke Hospital site comes after the council (contrast Ealing) enthusiastically welcomed the concept in June 2010:
"No one's done more than Wandsworth to break the stranglehold of the one-size-fits-all secondary school. We've encouraged our schools to break free of the authority and develop their own identity. As a result we have an excellent range of schools which achieve some of the best results in London"
With due regard for bias, 'developing their own identity' is seems to be code for 'drawing lines on a map that just happen to exclude areas with poor or working class (or, um, black) people and amazingly include the sort of person you are'. This isn't racism, obviously, the working class are presumably quite welcome to create their own schools over a nice glass of whatever disgusting beverage they drink, in between getting pregnant and stabbing each other, but the message seems to be: please stay on your side of the tracks, chaps. That you need a fervently libertorian council to pull this off is perhaps not surprising - I'm not sure the Orange Book Tendency in the Lib Dems is anywhere near strong enough in the party's current councils to dare attempt it, particularly given what's likely to happen in May's local elections. And yet again a low tax Tory flagship in a time of Tory enforced austerity just happens to have millions to throw at the project:
It may be that as the Council is about to embark on introducing a range of austerity measures when the new budget cuts get revealed, they are at the same time, going to be spending an apparent £13 million on acquiring the site for the new school from St Georges Hospital Trust.
The contrast between Toby Young's ever-decreasing circle approach to catchment area is also striking - at least SpudULike didn't blatantly differentiate geographically by class and income. The obvious end result is along the same pattern as allowing private firms to cherry pick NHS operations; the easy operations get lots of competition, the hard cases get left to whoever can be bothered. While there is a requirement to prove demand for the school exists before DfE approval is granted, this is massively prone to the kind of 'sign-here-if-you-like-fluffy-bunnies-and-nice-schools' nonsultation Toby got up to in Acton, and a glib propagandist like Michael Gove doesn't strike me as a man particularly keen on establishing actual facts before embarking on his ideological experiments. Quite the reverse.
3) Brandon and Clare Free Schools, Suffolk
These are slightly different - I've mentioned before that Suffolk is reducing its current three-tier school system to two tiers, leaving a number of middle school buildings redundant. These could have been sold off to pay the costs of the reorganisation but that was before Swinging Mike Gove and the Freedom Boys rolled into town. What's now likely to happen in places like Clare and Brandon (who sound like a couple of prominent members of Toby Young's WLFS mob, to me, but are in fact mid-sized towns on the edges of the county) is that the perfectly serviceable secondary school buildings will be handed over to start the Free Schoolers off, thus almost certainly providing too much choice in rural areas (they'll expand from ages 9-13 to 11-16, for instance) while areas like Ealing, which are seeing more births than expected, see their BSF money cut so Toby's kids can get up at 6am to travel to the next borough and learn Latin by rote in a school without any sports facilities. It's one thing opposing planning on principle, it's quite another to deliberately arrange matters so that the obvious car crash is made worse. I think we'll call it the Gove Effect.
P.S. Dead giveaway as to what Free Schools are really about from the SABRES (Brandon) FAQ:- 'The Education Providers we are interested in look for between 5-8% profit eventually'. Obviously that won't create any perverse incentives around selection or curriculum or political patronage and lobbying whatever. On which, more later...