I used to teach in Kilquhanity, a real “Free School” set up in 1941 by the visionary Scottish educationalist John Aitkenhead. His view of Freedom was simple: “You are free to jump into the water, but you are not free to stay dry”. We all need to need to take his advice and think hard about the consequences of our choices.
I was reminded of this today when I heard Paul Carter, Leader of Kent County Council (and one of the Conservatives own), telling the BBC that ordinary state schools will lose out as more “Free” schools and Academies are set up. Shadow Education Secretary Michael Gove rushed into the Today programme studios to tell us all that Paul Carter was fully behind the Conservatives plans but he was not entirely convincing. No matter how you do the sums (and Mr Gove did try), it is hard to see how we are going to be in a position to create the extra capacity that the Choice agenda requires against a background of reduced spending.
A few years ago as a governor in my daughters’ failing state primary I could see that things were seriously wrong but, despite the fact that all the parent governors had concerns, we were not listened to by the local authority. We set up a Parent Council to try to find a constructive way of channelling parental anxieties but again we were ignored. It was small satisfaction to know that when Ofsted finally arrived and gave the school a damning report, the issues they raised almost exactly mirrored the fifteen key issues which the Parent Council had identified and raised repeatedly with the school management over a three year period. The good news is that now, two years on, we are no longer in Special Measures and we have a well-run and happy school with a strong and effective Parent Council in place.
But something has been puzzling the new Head. Whenever we talk about the bad old days she asks us why on earth we did not just take our children out of the school. The answers are interesting: because it is our local school, because our other children had attended the school and we felt it was “our” school, because our children had friends there and, perhaps most important of all, because we did not want to simply walk away from a failing school and leave other people’s children to their fate – we had a strong sense that the school could be better and we wanted to help to make it happen. Many of us had invested our time and energy in the school for many years and we were not willing going to give upon it just yet.
Reading the manifestos of the three main parties, I am struck by the fact that all of them equate parental choice and involvement with parents wanting to move their children out of existing schools and into new schools and maybe even run those schools themselves. But what if parents don’t actually want a new school let alone one they have to run it themselves? What if they just want their existing school to be better? A recent MORI poll found that 62% of those polled thought that local authorities were the best people to run schools. Only 5% thought parents should be running schools whereas a third thought parents should not be running schools.
Politicians are right to say that people want to make a difference to their communities. But people have strong loyalties to local institutions. There may be parents who are desperate to set up new schools in their own image for their offspring but many more of us want to stick with our local community schools that have served our families and communities for years and simply be allowed to contribute to making them better. It is not a lot to ask and it is surely a better way to spend our money.