Open Thinkering


Free schools: the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good

I’m all for Free Schools in principle. The idea of community involvement in setting up a school is exactly what should happen in my book. I’m not so sure about the ‘parent-led’ part of it, but a school as reflecting community values and being responsive to context is highly in tune with my own political and educational thinking. That’s the good.

The Bad

But I’m not in favour of Free Schools if they’re all going to be along the lines of the West London Free School. It states proudly that it’s going to have a ‘narrow, academic’ curriculum focused on the Classics. Yes, that includes Latin.

I can remember reading for my MA in Modern History the debate between T.H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold (see here). The latter had a tough time defending the idea of a Liberal education based on the Classics in the 19th century, never mind the 21st. To say that “a classical education forms the bedrock of Britain’s most successful independent schools” is to commit the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc* – i.e. that there is a causal connection between the content of the curriculum and the success of the current elite maintaining their hegemonic power.

The Ugly

Toby Young, the son of a peer in the House of Lords and author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is leading the project for the West London Free School, linked to above. I’m not sure who’s doing his PR but I really wouldn’t be using the video featured on the site (and below) as promotional material. Given the title of his book, perhaps he’s taking his own advice. I have never come across such a perfect example of a smug, inconsiderate and xenophobic story as the one he recounts with narrowly-contained glee towards the end of this interview:



So, schools free of Local Authority control, with the power to adapt their curriculum to the needs of their local community? Yes please!

What I don’t want to see, and what I think the school Toby Young is helping set up is a prime example of, is the perpetuation of middle class cultural capital masquerading as parental choice. Unfortunately ‘answering’ the question about the middle classes in your FAQ doesn’t make an iota of difference in practice.

*See, I can do Latin too and I just went to the local comprehensive. :-p

11 thoughts on “Free schools: the good, the bad and the ugly.

  1. I did Latin at school (got the GCSE and everything!) and it’s not all bad, you know. In fact it’s a very helpful language to study as it underpins a lot of modern language, as does Greek. That said I don’t really feel that it should be enforced, but where it’s taught and taught well I think the Classics can be A Good Thing 🙂

    And for my 2p, the concept of a community-led school is good, but generally speaking I would say the old adage that ‘the person is clever; the people are stupid’ is about right. Unfortunately! 😉

    1. I’m sure it is, and I would defend Philosophy (my undergrad degree) under the same banner of ‘you don’t know what you haven’t got’. Still, it’s more than just Latin that’s going on here. It’s a focus on the products of an unquestioned social elite.

  2. Maybe Toby Young wants a country were the peasants practice all their lives to shoot bows (if they’re lucky) and the rich ride around in shining armour….

    Or maybe the whole free school thing is built on a false premise – “local authorities aren’t working for all schools so let’s circumvent then”. But what if we had smaller local authorities like they do in the States… might that work?

  3. My worry is that this is a circle that can’t be squared. Once you allow Free Schools, then the Toby Young’s of the world are as free to establish them as the Doug Belshaws.

    The idea of ‘choice’ is education as pedaled by the previous government was based on a complete failure to understand that the vast majority of the people in this country don’t have (or want?) a choice – just a decent local school. The Free Schools idea takes this fallacy and turns it (potentially) into a fiasco.

    1. Well put, Dave.

      The height of the ‘choice’ shenanigans for me was when I saw bus stop adverts for choosing which hospital you’d like to go to. It’s as if, like you say, *everyone* doesn’t want their local hospital/school/whatever to be the *best* it can be!

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