E Jane Dickson: Free schools will be middle-class ghettos

The policy is not, in any meaningful sense, about ‘parent power’. It is about powerful parents. It could cost a generation of children its chance of a better future
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I'm thinking of setting up my own Cabinet. I'm just not impressed with the current shower and, frankly, see little scope for improvement in this one-government-fits-all system.

And I've got loads of friends who think the same. We may not have huge amounts of experience in running affairs of state, but we're terrifically committed. So let's bypass the bureaucrats and do the show right here!

If there is a flaw in this argument, it hasn't been spotted by Michael Gove, the man appointed by the coalition to raise the bar in British schools. Yesterday Gove formalised his invitation to parents, teachers, charities and businesses to set up their own free schools, independent of local authorities but funded by the state.

Two thousand primary schools and 600 secondaries – those judged "outstanding" by government inspectors – have already been offered "fast-track" access to academy status in a move the Government hopes will improve standards and free teachers from red tape. As from now, parents are free to submit their own proposals for "pop-up" community schools and it is Gove's declared ambition that all schools will eventually attain academy status.

"The situation we have in this country at the moment," he points out, "is that we have one of the most stratified, segregated school systems in the developed world." Good rousing, democratic stuff , but it is far from clear how the Government's game plan will iron out the inequalities it most properly deplores. The academy system, at its inception, was engineered to "bring up" failing schools to an acceptable standard. Roping in already excellent schools will, evidently, boost the performance profile of academies. It seems to me equally evident that with government goodwill – not to mention resources – pouring into the top end, the gap between these high-performing schools and those already foundering at the bottom of the heap can only grow wider.

As with any privatised system, hopes are pinned on the principles of "free choice" and competition. Parents, it is argued, will vote with their feet and the money will follow the parents. Power to the parents! Three cheers for Big Society!

If successful schools were indeed like successful businesses – ie with an infinite capacity to expand – it might just work. Unfortunately, as Michael Gove must know, every half-decent school in England is vastly oversubscribed – which makes a frustrating nonsense of any "free choice" charter. Similarly, devolving power to parents would be a fine idea if all parents were created equal. They are not. And this is what worries me most about this latest tranche of proposals for "parent-run" schools and academies.

With two children in state education I am concerned, to the point of panic, about the ever-stretching spectrum of achievement and expectations in our schools. My son and daughter attend different comprehensive secondary schools, both of them considered "good options" locally, and the difference between them is already substantial. One is a front-runner for academy status; the other, owing to a wider demographic, is not. How can I be encouraged by a brave new system that promotes the life-chances of one of my children over the other?

From a wider standpoint, I was for several years a parent governor at my children's primary school. It too is a successful, heavily oversubscribed school. It also has a significantly low number of children on free school meals. The two facts are not unrelated and it is wilfully obtuse to pretend that they are.

As a governor, I was party to a wide overview of parental concerns. Overwhelmingly, the concerns most frequently and most vigorously voiced were related to the "stretching" of more academically able children. These are concerns I understand well – but it behoves schools to take an objective view and deploy teaching resources for the benefit of every child in their care, not just those fortunate enough to have parents with the time or inclination to fight their individual case.

Supporters of free schools are keen to emphasise the democratic nature of the enterprise – such schools, they insist, will not be "middle-class ghettos". Toby Young, a prominent free school campaigner who hopes to set up his own establishment in leafy Ealing, is particularly hot on this point. "Yes," he admitted this week in an open letter to Michael Gove, "the group I'm leading in Ealing is predominantly middle class, but most of the 720 groups that have registered their interest with the New Schools Network aren't. Indeed, the main impetus to start 'free schools' will come from parents who are not satisfied with the local provision, but who can't afford to private."

I don't know what Young's definition of "middle class" is, but I'd say there was a significant difference between not having the money to go private and being poor. And it is the broadening division between rich and poor, not the infinite gradations of "genteel poverty", that worries me most about this new "subsidised-private" sector.

Young is 100 per cent right when he says, "It is patronising to assume that only middle-class parents are interested in a rigorous, academic education for their children." But it is, at best, disingenuous to assume that all parents will find it equally easy to secure funding, premises and, most crucially, expert teaching for their dream schools. Cut loose from standardised pay scales, it is virtually inevitable that the richest schools will attract the best-qualified teachers. How many children from areas of high unemployment and low expectations will, I wonder, get a sniff at that "rigorous, academic education"?

The free school policy is not, in any meaningful sense, about "parent power". It is about powerful parents. The confusion could cost a generation of children, disempowered already by circumstance, its chance of a better future.

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