I have been mulling over some of the recent comments on this site and wondering what the future might bring for some of our passionate free school providers. Here are some thoughts about how the next few years might look from the vantage point of a parent writing to the Local Schools Network, in 2015. An election is looming and education is a fraught and highly contested policy area as the Coalition battles to defend the vast sums of money it has spent on promoting its ideas about a free market in schools.....
I am a parent of three teenage children. When they were all at primary school, I started to scan my local secondaries and was distinctly unimpressed by what I saw. None of them seemed to offer the sort of education from which I felt I had benefitted at my public school. The didn’t teach the names of kings and queens chronologically, although I never bothered to check with the headteachers how history was taught. Moreover some boys from one of the schools once tapped on the bonnet of my car as I was driving past, so I got the feeling that behaviour wasn’t quite what I would want for my own children. Rather than ‘risk’ that school for them, even though I have never been inside to see for myself what was going on, I decided to set up my own school. I called it the North London Free School.
I was lucky - the Secretary of State, who I knew a bit from London social circles - kindly bought me a site and, with my fellow parent governors, we appointed a sharp suited, articulate head with experience of working in the private sector, which we believed would appeal to our fellow local school refusniks. In spite of my reservations about the very mixed local schools, I did believe profoundly that, having benefitted from a top notch education myself, I should try and put something back into society and give a hand up to the poorest children, and I wanted to be seen to be doing things by the book, so we carefully crafted an admissions system which appeared to be comprehensive and open to all, although the school did send a few crafty signals through the curriculum we were offering, (and the expensive blazer from Harrods helped too).
Unfortunately the head turned out not to be the ‘star’ we had predicted, he wasn’t much good at performance managing his staff, got on the wrong side of a lot of parents and spent too much time either out at conferences organised by the New Schools Network and the Academies and Free Schools Trust, or in his office. Quality of teaching and behaviour started to slip quite quickly and the word went out on the street that the school was on the slide. Even worse, one of the schools attended by those pupils who tapped my car finally finished its epic New Labour BSF project, which cost millions, took years to procure and build , but opened half a mile away with a gleaming new building which made our converted office block look rather shabby.
The profile of our admissions started to change, and aspirant middle class parents began to drift away mid-year. We are a small school, our budget started to look quite precarious so we had no option but to take in pupils rejected by other schools including some who had complex special educational needs and very challenging behaviour. The New Labour academy has been attracting parents back and has found devious ways of excluding its most challenging pupils, while closing its doors to those from other schools.
Meanwhile another group of parents, not satisfied with the gleaming new Labour comp, or our mediocre faux private school, decided they could do the free school thing better than us so they put in a bid for another new school which they called the North London Parochial New School. The Secretary of State gave it the go- head, after a three day consultation which was really more of a marketing exercise than an attempt to see what other parents in the area might think. He told us that he believed families in our area still didn’t have enough choice.
The new school formed a complex set of partnerships with the Church of England AND a nearby top private school. It incorporated a Christian ethos, added boaters to our blazers and devised a highly complex admissions policy made of three distinct strands – a percentage of pupils who could prove faith, a percentage who could prove aptitude in music and performing arts and a banding system based on the ability spread of the applicants, rather than the local community.
All of this is perfectly permissible under the current slimmed down admissions code (which I applauded heartily when it was brought in), as is the judicious distribution of the school brochure in the more affluent parts of the borough, and the careful but thoroughly opaque method of assigning points to each applicant based on the above three criteria. We also suspect that the New Parochial School is using its freedoms to manage admissions to pick and choose applicants with the most desirable post –codes. Its system was too complicated to be managed by the local authority computer which collates admissions for our school and the other maintained schools in the area.
I appealed to my friend the Secretary of State, who was quite interested in my project at the start, but now has his eye on an imminent post election Cabinet re-shuffle and is mentally moving on to his longer term goal of becoming Foreign Secretary so he doesn’t really care. The much vaunted expansion of academies and free schools means his department has far too many schools to manage from the centre to get bogged down in ensuring each one complies with the admissions code, so I was fobbed off to a distant quango called the Education Funding Agency, staffed by faceless bureaucrats of the type my friend the Secretary of State used to say were destroying state education. They couldn't help either and the Schools Adjudicator rejected our complaint about the Parochial Schools’ admissions because his powers were limited to interpreting the Code which permits all their methods of covert selection.
The new school is already proving popular with a certain type of aspirant middle class parent we used to call our own. There are too many school places in our area, we have finally managed to move our ineffective head on, but finding a high quality successor is hard. It is a dog eat dog world out there and we can’t offer the salaries available to bigger schools.
To make matters worse , my own children love the North London Free School and don’t want to leave, so even my own profoundly held belief ( admittedly crafted when I was young, free and childless) that public services can function like supermarkets with consumers moving in and out at will, is shaken. Should I keep them in a school they love, in which I believe profoundly? Or should I take them out and move them to the Parochial School? Even worse should I admit my experiment has been a failure and, according to the principles of the market, close the school down? It has been suggested that the DFE might discreetly broker a deal between us and one of the large academy chains, who now run thousands of schools across the country, but that seems equally wrong to me, especially as the first thing they would do is dismantle the governing body and replace it with a group of non parents from out of the local area, undermining the very point of our existence.
The coming election has really made me think hard about my experience of being a ‘parent promoter’. It sounded so easy back then and , even though I find it hard to admit that our experiment has not been the success I once dreamed of, I realise that we were seduced by the rhetoric of ministers who really didn’t understand fully that a market in schools can’t work like the retail sector. Children are not tins of baked beans - only yesterday my daughter asked me bleakly why people in the local area just look embarrassed when she says which school she goes to- and nothing prepared me for the attitudes of other, fellow parents (some of whom I thought of as friends) or for the unexpected external changes that can dramatically affect the well being of individual schools.
Yet who do we vote for now? I wish one of our main political parties would have the courage to say that there might be another way of running our schools but everyone seems frightened of jumping first in case they get attacked in the right wing press for not being ‘radical ‘ enough by journalists who, I have now discovered , know even less than government ministers about what really goes on in state schools because they rarely use them for their own children.
Once upon a time, when I was setting up my school, I used to log in occasionally to your website. It used to enrage me as it seemed to be full of people I assumed to be closet Trots , who were against parent choice, in favour of dumbed down social engineering and obsessed with trying to prevent schools like mine opening. I particularly remember being disgusted by their idea that local authorities should have even more power to plan places, manage admissions and exclusions and holding schools to account locally.
And now? I am not so sure......