Private School Lite

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The dilemma which faces every middle class British parent is summed up perfectly in the first episode of the new series of BBC1 comedy, Outnumbered. Gran offers mum £3,000 of her life-savings, suggesting that it be donated (air quotes mandatory) to a good state secondary, in order to ensure her grandchildren’s places at the top of the waiting list. ‘But that’s not how it works anymore,’ mum protests. ‘You just have to pretend to be religious, or lie about where you live.’

It is true that many comprehensive schools are far from comprehensive when it comes to their social make-up. The UK’s best grammar schools, now relatively few and far between, have privileged children travelling from miles around to take their entrance exams. Luckily, for a mere £20 an hour you can have your little one privately tutored to the point where they can recite the entire test, including every single past paper dating back to 1904 from memory. In French. Unsurprisingly, this kind of arrangement is a preserve of the middle classes. As brought to light recently by Michael Gove MP, the Shadow Schools Secretary, only 45 pupils eligible for free school meals were granted entrance to the hallowed corridors of Oxford and Cambridge universities last year. Tony Blair’s battle cry of ‘Education, Education, Education’ seems to have faded into distant memory, and the achievement gap between rich and poor is ever-growing.

Before you start worrying, dear average-income parents, don’t, because it’s all going to be ok. The Conservative Party have the answer, and if they win the general election on May 6th they’re going to seriously shake up the system. Labour’s City Academy programme, (they later dropped the “City” part, as it was seen to be shockingly discriminatory against rural areas), has already granted public funding to semi-autonomous state schools, sponsored by private individuals, businesses, the voluntary sector, universities or faith groups, to name but a few possibilities. The Tories propose to take this decentralisation process even further, modelling their education reforms on the Swedish system of ‘free schools’. This essentially means that any willing group of parents, teachers, shopkeepers or religious cult members could be given a pot of gold directly from the end of the treasury rainbow to set up their own school. These new educational establishments would be given almost complete freedom from government control.

This is all very well and good for some, but what about the children government education reforms should actually be trying to help? Are the kind of parents who have both the time and means to agonise for hours over writing their own curriculum, finding a perfect school building that gets just the right amount of sun, and hand-picking teachers inspiring enough for little Johnny to really thrive, going to be the parents of the most disadvantaged children; the ones who are being let down so badly by the current system? Mothers and fathers in Acton are already laying down plans for their own free school, to be opened (Tory election win pending) in September 2011. The West London Free School will seek to provide, ‘an academically rigorous education that will prepare children from all parts of the local community to be tomorrow’s leaders. The focus of the curriculum will be classical civilization and every pupil will be expected to learn Latin up to the age of 16’. Why classics, you ask? ‘A classical education forms the bedrock of Britain’s most successful independent schools’. I see what’s going on here. The group admit that allegations of their being middle-class “pushy parents” are ‘broadly true’. Is the West London Free School really going to, as they claim, drive up standards of other state secondaries in the area due to the added competition? Is it really going to allow children whose parents wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford the fees, to experience Private School Lite?

A decent education should be a birthright and in an ideal world every British child, regardless of wealth or postcode, would have a place at a well-run, high-achieving state school waiting for them. This is not currently the case, and it may never happen if schemes such as this continue to tirelessly imply that the traditional state sector is just not good enough. Sending your child to the local comprehensive is not automatically going to destroy their future. Parents who are motivated enough to consider setting up a brand new school would be much better placed as parent governors in their local secondary, working to improve its standards – without having to start completely from scratch. Cameron talks of ‘big society’ and community spirit, but why go to so much trouble? Just so that your child won’t have to go to the second-best school, in what is already a fairly meaningless league table? The attainment gap is only going to shrink if savvy parents are unable to get away with cheating the current system. Renting a flat in the catchment area of ‘the best’ local school. Suddenly becoming devout Catholics, as soon as little Suzie enters year six. Buying your first choice a new Science block, or a school pony. Allowing such rule-bending will not make the system fairer, and making sure all the better off children are lumped together in one place will only perpetuate the cycle. When parents avoid them because another school scores one percentage point higher in the GCSE contest, decent schools become mediocre schools. Mediocre schools become bad schools. And so the inequality continues.

The Liberal Democrats have described the free school proposal as simply, ‘costly’, which it undoubtedly would be. Where the champagne bottles that will be breaking against these gleaming new school building walls will be coming from is unclear, especially as the Tories are the only main political party who are advocating massive public sector cuts should they win the general election. One can only assume that the cash will be sucked from the already strained budget of…that’s right – the area’s local state schools. And having been heavily invested in by the British taxpayer, what happens if a free school fails? Some undoubtedly will do, given that many of the schools will be set up by individuals or groups who are not education professionals, and have little or no experience in the field (apart from hopefully having been to school in their formative years. But then again, having been to a hospital surely qualifies you as a doctor, doesn’t it?) Money is pouring down the drain in apocalyptic floods at this point.

Many a good thing has come out of Sweden. IKEA. Greta Garbo. ABBA. But let us not as a nation be blind followers, copying a system for which there is little to no evidence that it will do anything to improve the lot of disadvantaged British children, and a fair amount suggesting that it will in fact do the opposite, all at a great financial cost. Of course our schools should be better-funded, teachers better-paid, class sizes made smaller, lessons intellectually stimulating and children happy. It may have to be a very gradual process, but there is no reason why all this cannot be achieved in the state system as we already know it.

Article by Lizzie Palmer. Edited by Kate Banks.