Are you “free”? What a daft question! Do you work in a “Free School”? What a daft name! Why are they so called? “Free” is a fibbing word. Like much educational verbiage, it flatters to deceive and can mean just about anything. Free? Free to do what? To wander blithely through the groves of academe with your own cutting-edge pedagogy? Fat chance. To teach how and what you want? Like Creationism? Or Darwin was wrong, the Enlightenment never happened or that gays cause Armageddon?
Let’s hope not. And free from what? Oppressive Curriculums? Local Authorities? The more delinquent children in the inner city? Or does the word carry a more philosophical resonance? Are Rousseau or Sartre or Illich in the mix here? Perhaps my old comp was free. Famously progressive, “the Socialist Eton”, we were a bit too free for some and had to be “turned around”.
Mind you, we were Wormwood Scrubs compared to the London Free School down the road, the Portobello Road, in ‘66. “An anarchic temporary coalition” of sixties nutcases – like Syd Barrett or Alexander Trocchi and RD Laing – it lasted about a fortnight. I rather liked it, but soon came to my senses. You were merely free to go barking.
These musings were prompted by the Department for Education’s recent rejection of the Institute of Education’s proposed own Free School in Holborn. My old Alma Mater, the Institute is a world-class institution, somehow still managing to tend to the left of things – and hence probably a Nest of Bolsheviks. The Holborn School was three years in the planning.
Then the Man from the Ministry, he say “No!” Who he? The Lord Nash. Or rather Baron Nash of Ewelme. A Life Peer and sometime big wig in the Ventures Capitalism and something called Sovereign Capital, he donated nigh on £300,000 to the Tory coffers. He’s big on free schools, but not this one.
The proposals, he pronounced, “lack coherence”. Moreover, there is a dearth of secondary school leadership experience, we are told. Hang on. Is this the same lot who didn’t object to an unqualified headteacher at the Pimlico Primary free school? I’m afraid so. A DfE minion adds, “Free schools must meet strict criteria”. A bit of an oxymoron.
These criteria would seem to be right wing. The parents think so. They are “dumbfounded” and consider the rejection “political”. Of course it is. Teachers are condemned to deliver the most conservative of curriculums – or else. “Free” seems to mean what we linguists call “Not Free”. The opposite of “free”. The more they’re called “free”, that’s exactly what they’re not. Humpty Dumpty stuff. Some schools seem to be more free than others.