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Former Weatherman bomber slams British free schools

Respected US education academic Bill Ayers - a reformed member of Sixties radical terrorist group The Weathermen - has attacked the British Government's bid to set up "free schools".

Professor Ayers - who was at the heart of a scandal that rocked US president Barack Obama's election campaign in 2008 when rival candidate Sarah Palin accused him of "palling around with terrorists" - writes with his brother Rick in this week's TES that the policies are part of a "fetishisation of the market".

The semi-retired academic is considered one of America's leading progressive educationalists and was among the first to spot Obama's potential, hosting one of his first political fundraising events.

"The view that the market is the wisest teacher, and the pursuit of wealth and unfettered competition is the path to the good life, has moved from the economic sphere to all walks of life," he writes.

"In an application of Orwellian double-speak, these privatisation efforts are recast as 'free schools' - a cynical term that would make AS Neill of Summerhill ... turn in his grave."

Professor Ayers, who has since apologised for the bombing campaign undertaken by the Weathermen throughout the US in the late Sixties and early Seventies, also attacks the growing dependency on testing.

"This fetishisation of market forces suggests that a single measure, the standardised test, is wholly adequate to determine if a student has learnt or developed well - an assumption that every classroom teacher knows to be a lie.

"Not only are these tests inherently biased by class and race, they narrow the curriculum, dumbing down schools to test prep and move away from deeper learning. Test dogma sets all in competition, district against district, school against school, teacher against teacher, and student against student.

"The proponents of market competition have pushed their ideology on to the agenda by force of wealth and power, not through evidence or argument. Indeed, study after study has shown that test prep factories, school turn-around and reconstitution, "charters" in the US and, no doubt, the new "free schools" in Britain, fail to push the needle at all in outcomes, even as they measure them."

Insight, page 19

The Weathermen

Stormy times

The Weathermen emerged out of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a militant left-wing organisation that campaigned in the late Sixties and early Seventies for social justice and against the Vietnam War.

Disenchanted with the SDS's non-violent approach, in 1970 a splinter group - Weather Underground Organization - issued a Declaration of a State of War against the US government.

The bombing attacks targeted government buildings, including Congress and the Pentagon, and were preceded by warnings. Their momentum petered out in the 1980s, as the organisation's members surrendered after years on the run.

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