When Michael Gove first launched the idea of free schools it was to a universally negative response from the educational establishment and their left-wing fellow travellers. Comments like this prevailed:
“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.”
We were told by the educationalists that middle-class parents would club together to set up schools where their sensitive children would not have to face the terrible experience of the local comprehensive. The policy would be divisive, would increase segregation and would reduce social mobility.
Well I’ve some news for the educational establishment, it seems – at least here in Bradford – that the free school idea is being used by enterprising groups of teachers, existing organisations, local entrepreneurs and some private schools to create innovative and exciting new approaches to education. Out of our nine free school applications just one is led by parents and that’s a proposal for a school specialising in support for dyslexic children.
The remaining eight proposals – at various stages in the process – include:
Kings Science Academy opens this September – fully subscribed. The school was set up by experienced and successful teachers and is backed by Alan Lewis a Bradfordian who has helped turn round major international businesses.
Rainbow Primary School – again planning to open in September, this is a non-denominational primary schools and is promoted by ATL a local business and enterprise charity.
One-in-a-million – an 11-18 academy promoted under the aegis of Bradford City Football Club aiming to open in 2012 providing an education focused on sport, art and enterprise.
Bradford District Free School is led by teachers with experience of successful education in inner-city Bradford and who want to focus on enterprise, vocational challenges and a concentration on the skills
young people need to get into employment, further education and a successful career.
None of these schools fits the left’s idea of “middle-class parents opting out”, instead we see teachers, business people and charities grasping the opportunity that free schools provide – the chance to offer innovative, creative and exciting educational options to the young people of Bradford. There’s a pent up demand for educational change, for new opportunities and to provide a better future for a lot of young people who, right now, get a pretty raw deal from the education system.
Just as significant is that we haven’t seen a spate of “faith-based” schools proposed. In a city with over 100,000 Muslims there isn’t a single proposal for an Islamic ‘free school’ – the only religious school proposed is the conversion of the existing Bradford Christian School from a fee-paying private school to a free school. Most of Bradford’s Muslim population is more interested in making sure sons and daughters get the skills to advance in life than in a narrow Islamic curriculum – as Councillors we witness, through casework and through the admissions process, the desire of parents to get their children into schools that can give those young people the best chance in life.
Free schools offer such a chance to more children in Bradford’s inner-city. Rather than wait for the wheels of bureaucracy to respond, teachers, business leaders, the voluntary sector, existing private schools and parents are able to take action – to do just what Michael Gove intended and set up new schools that respond to local needs and provide great education.
It seems to me that the genie is out of the bottle. And I’m delighted!
Cllr Cooke is on Twitter @SimonMagus and blogs at The View from Cullingworth.