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Radical vision lost in the march to freedom

When the coalition government first mentioned free schools, I confess it struck some strangely elusive sympathetic chord. I checked Google and all became clear. There it was: Summerhill, a progressive private school in Suffolk. It was called a free school because A.S. Neill, the founder, believed children should be free to do as they please within certain limits, which they themselves decide at thrice-weekly school meetings. (I use the present tense because the school is still alive and prospering under the leadership of Neill's daughter.)

Even for someone implacably opposed in principle to private schooling, as so many idealists are, Summerhill has remained an honourable exception to the rule. Let me explain why. The Butler Act of 1944 laid the educational foundations for my post-war generation. Many of us became committed to new values of public service. The state had invested in us and we felt we should give something back. I was part of that. I chose to teach to make the world a better and fairer place. There was no question of where people like me would teach and send our children - the state-maintained sector.

The choice was a kind of litmus test of the integrity of our idealism. We simply could not countenance double standards and were ruthlessly judgemental about those who broke that unwritten taboo by teaching in or (worse still) sending their own children to independent private schools. We saw such schools, especially the leading so-called "public" schools, as bastions of privilege engaged in perpetuating class advantage from one generation to the next. If we were accused of being "social engineers", it was nothing compared to what Eton, Harrow and the rest were up to. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was only a matter of time, or so we thought, before they would be abolished.

Summerhill, however, was different. No parents sent their child there to gain social advantage. It stood as a beacon of radical education and many progressive state schools - such as Countesthorpe, Stantonbury, the Sutton Centre and countless primaries - beat a path to its door to learn from its practice.

The one-size-fits-all national curriculum and Ofsted put a stop to all of that. The visits dried up and those who supported Summerhill when Ofsted and then education secretary David Blunkett tried to close it did so because we thought the flame of radical alternatives in education, however low it flickered, should not be entirely extinguished. We might march to a different tune, but I have never been so sure of any approach being the only correct answer that I have wanted to impose it on others. Persuade yes, impose no.

So, when I first heard of Michael Gove's free schools, I thought we were going to have lots of Summerhills. But even at that stage it seemed improbable. The "do as you please school" is how friends and foes alike describe Summerhill. That does not sound quite the clarion cry of pro-school uniform and Latin-loving Toby Young at the West London Free School. Nor does it seem to resonate with the many faith schools in the first tranche of free schools, still less the two in Suffolk where the militant middle class are taking advantage of the reorganisation of the middle-school system to pitch their own exclusive free school tents.

Research shows that the first free schools have half the national average of free school meals (FSM) pupils. And even in an area of great disadvantage - Tower Hamlets in London, where 47 per cent of pupils are entitled to FSM - the Free School Canary Wharf College has just 2 per cent.

Whether that remains the case or not, common to most proposals are groups of parents anxious to avoid their children mixing with the undeserving poor. I say most because some cash-strapped local authorities are trying to use the device of free schools to build new primaries for population expansions, so great are the obstacles to building a community school.

In the footsteps of Mao?

So enthusiastically does Michael Gove push the line that every school should be a free school or an academy that he employs a schools commissioner to browbeat local authorities, heads and governors into taking the king's shilling. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic and Anglican diocesan authorities rush like Gadarene swine to give up aided status and go academy.

Does Mr Gove really believe that schools should be free of the national curriculum, which he is even now overhauling and re-imposing? Or is he a latter-day Mao committed to "letting a thousand flowers bloom"?

He cannot be both. When he has realised his dream, all the academies and free schools will not be remotely independent. They will be government schools and will be subject to whatever he specifies in his annual funding letter. Such letters will undoubtedly mention synthetic phonics and other favourite ministerial prejudices. Then to whom will you appeal? To the education secretary, of course, who will have more unfettered powers over schools than his counterpart in any Western democracy.

Like Mao, Mr Gove or his successor will lead a crackdown in what free schools and academies do. And like historians of 1950s China, we will be left wondering if Mr Gove and his coalition partners intended it all along.

Tim Brighouse is a visiting professor at the University of London's Institute of Education.

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