Tories pressured on interest groups and populist 'free' school policy

By staff writers
13 Apr 2010

The Conservative deputy leader, William Hague, says Tory 'free school' policy is about "having faith" in parents, but critics believe that in practice it may make education prey to special interest groups and extremists.

Under Conservative plans, parent groups will be able to subcontract private education companies to run the schools, without any need to change the law, and with many exemptions from existing regulation.

Teachers' unions have described such proposals as the “break-up of state education”, premised on "deceptive" and "seductive" claims about parent-power.

Education experts and campaigners say that smaller schools and classrooms and more direct parental and community involvement are positive ideas - but that the structure of Conservative proposals, flagged up in their manifesto published today, and defended by David Cameron's unofficial number two on BBC Radio 4 this morning, will actually make many schools less accountable, provision uneven and policies open to influence by hardline groups.

"I am very worried because alongside the benefits of greater parental control is the danger that without an insistence on transparency and without proper monitoring, they could result in very exclusivist types of schools that use a restricted syllabus and even propagate bigoted views," Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain told Ekklesia.

"My concern is that some of those who will seize upon the new freedoms will be those from fundamentalist outlooks (of all faiths) who will use it to limit the children’s freedom," says Dr Romain, a writer and broadcaster, minister of Maidenhead Synagogue in Berkshire and chair of the faith schools reform group the Accord Coalition.

Concerns about Conservative 'free school' proposals, which will involve making over state- and taxpayer-funded schools to private groups, are that they will end up in some cases denying educational opportunities to girls; teaching anti-scientific views like 'creationism' as "alternative theories"; keeping children in ignorance about some aspects of sex education like methods of contraception) or buttressing negative attitudes to those of other faiths and beliefs - including other groups within the same faith.

The narrow agendas of some groups eager to exploit the policy could cause more segregation and discourage meaningful engagement in a plural society, says Dr Romain.

"Unless the proposals have tight guidelines, insist on social cohesion, demand a broad and accurate syllabus and also provide for careful inspection, they could result in schools that are highly divisive and do a disservice to both the children attending and society at large," he says.

Free schools are the Conservatives’ education policy flagship. The party claims the proposals, inspired by reforms in Sweden and America, will improve standards in state education and close the gap in results with private schools.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, commented: "It is important that genuine concern for more parental and community involvement in schooling does not end up being used to benefit groups with an ideological or profit agenda, with little or no accountability or regulation. Problems of this kind have already emerged under the government's academies scheme. But politicians eager to pass on their education funding, administration and 'outcomes' challenges onto the private sector are at present unwilling to face the critical questions involved. Schooling is not 'free' - and the question remains as to who benefits, who loses and who decides both locally and at regional and national levels."

In October 2009 the man who designed the original model that inspired the Conservative party's plan for the Swedish-style 'free schools' said they were flawed and "risked failure".

Anders Hultin, the architect of the Swedish system, said the party's refusal to allow operators to make a profit would prevent the scheme from flourishing. To work, the Conservatives must allow a voucher system under which these schools could profit from their public funding, he said.

Research into the Swedish model has suggested disbenefits as well as benefits, and some educationists say that forming policy around ideas around which "the jury is still out" at a still early stage of development risks imposing substantial long-terms costs onto parents in order to win parental approval with populist slogans.

[Ekk/3]

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