Monday 27 August 2012

On Free Schools and Playing Fields

There has been a lot of fuss made lately in the national press about free schools, specifically the sale of the Hillock Lane playing fields in Woolston. Most of the blame for this row has been laid squarely at the feet of Michael Gove, the Education Minister. This is quite an unusual turn of events, not least because Gove himself has until now had fairly uncontroversial success in his ministerial post, as opposed to many of his colleagues. On top of this, rather than being used for housing or converted into a business park, the site is in fact being used to build the King's Leadership Academy, a new state school for the area.

Surely this should be good news for everyone, no? The land, after all, is still being used to benefit the educational needs of the local community. Apparently not. Indeed, the King's Leadership Academy is one of the oft-derided new "free schools" to be constructed in accordance with the government's education reforms. This is all quite perplexing, especially since free schools have been one of the government's most visibly successful policies so far. No reliable results can yet be brought forward as evidence of their usefulness, although their uptake has been quite enthusiastic, with 68 having already been approved and many more still to come.

It is also quite surprising that Woolston was chosen by opponents of the policy to be such a key case-study in gathering support for the popular petition currently doing the rounds. Even the news sources seeking to fight the proposal admit, amidst their bluster, that the school that formerly used the site has been long-closed and that the Leadership Academy is currently operating out of a disused infants school in the area. This also makes excellent use, it would seem, of vacant local education resources for the good of the community.

Outwardly this appears to be a masterful piece of marketeering that seeks to use the warm zephyr of the Olympics to whip the public into an idle frenzy about the state of British sport. Left Foot Forward, for example, spends a lot of time talking about "the Team GB of tomorrow" and the damage the construction of new schools will do our next medal haul. This does fly slightly in the face of the facts however, especially considering that playing fields have very little role in the kinds of sports in which Britain tends to excel. It would be much better to simply point to something like UK obesity figures, for example, which make quite a good case for the importance of sport, though there seems to be little rational about this knee-jerk argument in any case.

In most sources there is a lot of talk about "private development", which really reaches to the core of the issue when it is seen as a reflexive backlash against the evils of market forces which apparently must be fought at all costs. Free schools are finding themselves depicted as butchers and cowboys, with Michael Gove's efforts to encourage them seen as sly and backhanded, as though there were some sort of ulterior motive involved. In reality, free schools are hardly even representative of private enterprise at its most liberal, with the schools remaining under the careful guidance of Ofsted, forbidden from selecting according to ability and established only at the go-ahead of central government.

There has however been quite a lot of recent talk about the prospect of for-profit schools. With free schools at the moment being prohibited from making a profit of any kind, this would very much represent the next step down the privatisation route that is so abhorrent to the Left. Last week saw heated debate between two major think-tanks, the IEA and the IPPR, as to the viability of the proposal, with the final word seeming to be that the evidence from around the world consistently suggests that profit can be a powerful stimulus for the promotion of achievement of schools, especially those in deprived areas. Again, a great deal of left-wing ideology is involved in the counterargument, complaining that radical reforms such as these have no place in a child's development. This treatment as a special case however seems to emerge to hide the obvious inconsistency when these views are placed alongside a devotion to free markets in the press. This is not convincing.

While the prospect of for-profit schools remains far in the future, the issue at stake right now is that of choice. Free schools enable parents to select which schools they would like their children to attend, allowing poor ones to fail and enabling the best institutions to grow, and it is this element of choice and chance of failure that is profoundly unpalatable to the Left. Parental choice is admittedly not perfect, though it can be improved considerably, as the IEA notes, by the provision of additional useful data for schools, such as parental satisfaction scores, along the lines of recent motions towards transparency in central government and in the NHS. So far the markets themselves have accommodated for the choice gap by tragically permitting private schools to create a two-track system where the wealthiest children emerge best equipped to succeed. Gove's reforms are a sensible effort to satisfy this demand without resorting to heavy-handed measures, such as a ban on private education outright, which would be even more tragic in outcome.

Frankly, all of this is somewhat indicative of a general inclination to distrust the decision-making ability of the individual, forcing him to rely instead on the wisdom of central government. We hopefully do not need to be reminded of the failures of this policy in the past, which suggests that such wisdom might not be as great as it sounds. In spite of unfailing improvements in test scores (until this year) on the national level, British schools have consistently yielded astonishing failure on the international spectrum. If nothing else this should make it clear that, if radical education reform has ever been needed, it it needed now.

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