The free School debate, part 2

In a previous post on free schools, I examined some of the philosophical antecedents underlying the momentum for such schools that are based in J. S. Mill’s libertarian thinking. In this post I want to continue that discussion with a brief historical interlude, before concluding in the next post on the direction of travel under the conservatives and how different strands of libertarian thinking have articulated themselves into something rather different to Mill’s minimal state, and to the conservative’s avowed egalitarianism. The role of public services in the Conservative strategy of austerity is too critical an issue to ignore and in education this raises the challenge of what the free school’s policy in England actually represents and means for the future of public service.

In the 1970s there were a wave of free schools established that extolled a libertarian view of knowledge in that they wanted to enable young people to think for themselves, to avoid conformity and state regulation. Much of this would be recognisable to Mill. Many of these schools were also based on a class politics, rebelling against middle class mores and seeing value within working class communities that, they claimed, other schools did not. Apart from a belief in enabling the local community to participate, these schools were totally different to the free school proposals of today. Zoe Readhead, principal of the pioneering Summerhill School and daughter of its founder A.S. Neill, is quoted as being horrified by how the term free schools has been “hijacked’ by the government.

The White Lion Free School (1972-1990) had this to say about their approach in 1976:

“We start from the fact that the world is in a state of radical change; change far more rapid and total than anything that has gone on before (‘eco-spasm’, Alvin Toffler calls it, finding no existing word strong enough to describe what is happening). We feel confused by the changes like everyone else (though some, especially those in what used to be in ‘positions of authority’, are still afraid to admit it). Actually we doubt if any mere human can grasp what is going on. So the ‘Free School Philosophy’ is not at all definitive. It is simply an attempt to see what kind of school, if any, might be appropriate to this changing world”.

They go on to say that:

”…the frightening tendency at the moment is for schools to be forced into the mould of whatever happens to be the most powerful local influence” and further” what is need is a new kind of institution that can reflect our kaleidoscopic world without illegitimately imposing values, experiences, or particular forms of knowledge or skills on its members”.
[Source: “A free School ‘curriculum’ in Whitty, G. and Young, M., eds.(1976) Explorations in the politics of school knowledge” Driffield: Nafferton Books pp 179-189]

There are striking resemblances in these sentiments to the liberal rationalism of J.S. Mill. What is also striking are that the justifying rhetorics for the White Lion Free School’s foundation match many of those in New Labour (1997-2010) education policy, but they then take radically different directions of travel from each other. Some thirty years later, New Labour similarly pointed out the complex and rapidly changing nature of the world but used this to justify a very prescribed set of centrally reinforced standards (while simultaneously promoting a meaningless rhetoric of personalisation).  However, both free schools and recent governments’ education policies stir the same epistemological pudding bowl (a phrase borrowed from E. P. Thompson) since both prescription and non-prescription as organising rationales are founded on the utter certainty of their ideological underpinnings

There is an interesting BBC magazine article that provides a brief history to the early free school movement and can be found at this link here.

Quoting from the article:

 “The London Free School in Notting Hill opened in 1966. Soon they were cropping up all over the country – Bristol, Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham, and Brighton all got one. Liverpool had two, London at least four. To modern ears they sound like nothing short of anarchy.There would be no timetable, no compulsory lessons, no uniform, no hierarchy. Teachers would be called by their first names. The children would make up the rules and decide what they wanted to learn. There’d be no fees, fixed hours, term times or holidays. They were to be schools without walls – and open whenever the community wanted them. Many of them quickly folded – with some communities not receptive to the idea of educational anarchy. But a few put down solid roots”.

The schools that put down roots mainly did so by accepting public funding, providing more structure to the curriculum and school day, and providing a suite of qualifications. Those young people leaving many of the early free schools often found their lack of qualifications a barrier to greater economic opportunity, although many report on worthy values and that the schools had given them independent foundations for living a flourishing life. These early free schools certainly seemed to be able to accommodate young people who for one reason or another, found life in mainstream education just too difficult to conform to.

The thought of the educational ‘anarchy’ they represented has horrified many education worthies; former Chief Inspector of Schools, the late Chris Woodhead, described their history as a fiasco and a “dereliction of duty”. The William Tyndale Junior School (a state school) controversy of 1976 had thrown into sharp relief the question of who controls schools. Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech set the course for governments clearly aligning educational standards to the economic prosperity of the country and the greater involvement of parents in the running of schools. The current crop of free schools certainly operate under more tightly prescribed central controls than their predecessors, even with the number of freedoms they possess.

In the next blog I want to examine some of the other philosophical roots of this current policy and what this means for public services and the notion of an education system.

Post by Stephen