One of the weaknesses of those seeking to found free schools is that they proudly regard themselves as “non political.” Their opponents are ferociously political. The National Union of Teachers, (most of) the Labour Party, The Guardian and the BBC, assorted far Left groups. There will be the vested interests – most notably the existing schools who don’t want competition. Of course there will the education establishment – a hundred Marxist academics very willing to offer their “expert” view as Professors of Education as to why allowing a free school to open would be a great mistake.
Against this, in the correlation of forces, is a sitting room full of plucky parents and an official from the Department of Education giving a lot of daunting warnings about how difficult it will be.
Often these parents expect the politics to take care of itself. They imagine that if they can manage – against the odds – to come up with a viable proposal then they will show that not only will their own children benefit, but the wider community as well. It misses the point that the more they succeed, the more antagonistic their opponents will be. If a new free school is popular and achieves good results – as a result of being different to other local schools – then it is far more of a problem to “The Blob.”
That is why pacifism among free school founders is misguided. They can not afford to be disdainful of the political battle anymore than they can ignore finding a premises, or recruiting a fantastic head teacher, or deciding on a curriculum that meets the aspirations parents have for their children.
In some ways, to be viable at all, a free school already has potential political clout. That is because they must have demonstrated demand. Which means signing up hundreds of potential parents.
Toby Young, the founder of the West London Free School, is always up for a ruck. He is always happy to get stuck into a political argument through the media on any platform. At one stage he reflected if a less antagonistic approach would be better. He writes in How to Set Up a Free School:
“I began to doubt whether I’d made the right call myself and when I appeared on Any Questions? with Andrew Adonis I decided to seek his advice. This was just after the last general election. He kindly agreed to share a car with me back to London and I told him I was having second thoughts about dealing with my opponents so aggressively. A more helpful approach might be to invite them to meet with my group and see if we could find some common ground. Perhaps ask Fiona Millar what admissions policy she would regard as ‘fair’. At bottom, we all wanted the same thing, which was good local schools for everyone, so it should be possible to engage in a constructive dialogue about how best to achieve that.
“He gave me a look of withering contempt, much like the look Prospero gives his naive daughter in The Tempest when she expresses admiration for the rogues that have washed up on his island.
‘They’re not interested in “constructive dialogue”,’ he said. ‘Don’t you get it? If you extend any sort of olive branch to them they’ll see it as a sign of weakness and move in for the kill. I dealt with exactly the same people – the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Anti-Academies Alliance, the NUT – for most of my ministerial career and, believe me, they would rather stick pins in their eyes than admit they have common ground with someone like you. Their attitude to free schools is the same as their attitude to academies: they won’t rest until every last one has been razed to the ground.’ “
I’ve just started a local blog and the biggest controversy in Hammersmith and Fulham at present concerns the Fulham Boys School – a new Church of England secondary free school that was due to open in September. It’s opening has been pulled by the Department of Education as it now lacks a permanent site. This is because Labour took control of the council and cancelled plans to merge two primary schools, thus freeing a site. They have also effectively blocked an alternative by refusing to show support for the property developers, Capco, extending the lease for the temporary site, or offering a permanent site. Capco are willing to extend their lease. The problem comes with concerns about vexatious challenges from a hostile Labour council causing extra cost, delay and uncertainty. That threat needs to be lifted.
By the way, despite their sabotage, the Labour councillors claim to support the school opening. At least the Labour MP for Hammersmith, Andrew Slaughter, is straightforward in his hostility to “yet another free school.”
This leaves the Fulham Boys School (and the Church of England) with a choice. They can either give up – quietly shaking their heads at how disappointing it is to have “squabbling politicians.” Or they can campaign for the Council to lift its objections to Capco offering extended use of its site – with every councillor’s email inbox making clear the strength of feeling.
There will be variations of this choice around the country. Local authorities do have a major impact – for good or ill – on free schools being able to find a site and get established on it.
Whether they like it or not, those starting a free school are engaging in a political act.