The debate: Should parents set up schools?

29th January 2010 at 00:00
Defender of comprehensives Fiona Millar and writer Toby Young lay down their arguments

Original paper headline: The debate: Should parents be encouraged to set up schools?

The Conservatives have promised to back parent-promoted "free schools" if they win power. Fiona Millar, columnist and defender of comprehensives, fears such institutions could damage the education system. But writer Toby Young is leading a group of parents campaigning to set one up. Before going head to head in a televised debate, they lay down their arguments to The TES.

NO - This is not the fairest way for parents to exercise choice - Fiona Millar, Columnist and vice-chair of Comprehensive Future

It is 20 years since my first child started school. In that time parents have been urged to exercise choice, power, make representations, sign contracts, chivvy teachers, call in Ofsted, join governing bodies, start PTAs, help in the classroom or simply make sure their children get to school on time, well fed and rested, wearing the right uniform, having done their homework.

The demands sometimes feel overwhelming, especially for parents who are working full-time. But there is no doubt that parental involvement in schools and parental engagement in their children's learning - two entirely different things, by the way - make a difference.

The primary school my children attended was transformed partly by the determination of parents who stuck by the school when it was failing and fought to make it better.

And the research reviews of academics like Professor Charles Desforges have demonstrated how much a child's achievement can be enhanced by parental support away from school. Too many children can't count on love, encouragement, clear boundaries and aspiration at home. Schools that now excel with very challenging intakes often work tirelessly with their families to help these children thrive.

So given that I am a firm believer in parental involvement in education, why do the proposals to help parent promoters start "free schools" which will sit outside the maintained system make me uneasy? Many parent campaigns for new schools have been effective and necessary in areas where there simply aren't enough places. I have supported several over the years.

But the context matters. At the heart of this proposal is the idea that, at a time of unavoidable spending cuts, money should be siphoned off from existing budgets and given to parents who want to start new schools, even if there isn't a shortage of places locally.

In many areas this will create unfunded surplus places - manna from heaven for the sort of free marketeers who believe that unfettered competition drives up standards, but reckless and irresponsible from the point of view of heads and governors who are already having to contemplate year-on-year efficiencies, not to mention parents in other local schools which may see their funding drain away.

But where would you draw the line? Toby Young wants a pseudo grammar school in his local area where he feels the local comprehensive, judged "good with outstanding features" by Ofsted, isn't good enough for his children.

Does that mean every group of parents dissatisfied with their local provision should be indulged? What if they are rooted in fundamentalist faith groups or have quirky ideas about the curriculum?

And free schools will be just that - free of regulations that bind in other maintained schools. Indeed the Tories have promised members of parent promoter groups that they will jump the admissions queue and automatically get places in their own schools, inevitably ensuring they quickly become self-selecting islands in their own communities, creaming off pupils as well as money from their neighbours.

Those of us who oppose this idea aren't anti-choice, or anti-parent. We are for ensuring that choice can be exercised fairly in a system that values all parents and children equally. Giving parents who shout the loudest money we don't have, to set up new schools we don't need with freedoms their neighbours don't enjoy, will do anything but that.

YES - Our "free school" experiment should be allowed to go ahead - Toby Young, Writer and founder of the campaign for the West London Free School

I am currently leading the efforts of a group of parents and teachers to start a new comprehensive in Acton, west London - a fairly benign project, I would have thought, particularly as there is a desperate need for a new secondary school in the area. Yet whenever I write anything about it, or appear on the TV or radio to talk about it, there's Fiona Millar, wagging her finger in my face. It's like being stalked by Rosa Klebb.

She is always introduced as a "defender of state education", which is irritating because she isn't. She's not a defender of faith schools or city technical colleges or grammar schools - she even has her doubts about academies. The only state schools she defends are what her partner, Alistair Campbell, charmingly calls "bog-standard comprehensives". Given how little sympathy she has for any school that deviates from this model, it would be more accurate to describe her as an attacker of state education. That's all she ever does - attack, attack, attack.

One of her main complaints is that I'm not an educationalist, so what business have I got trying to run a school? I'm just a parent. Problem is, she's just a parent, too, yet that hasn't stopped her becoming chair of governors at William Ellis School in north London (percentage of students gaining five GCSE grades A*-C in 2009, including English and maths: 49).

She tries to paint my group as a collection of nutters, with the implication that allowing us to get our hands on a secondary school would be like handing over a broken watch to a bunch of chimpanzees. In fact, our steering committee is dominated by teachers, including a head of year at Mill Hill County High School and the director of academic management at Latymer Upper School. We are no less qualified to run a school than she is.

Sometimes she switches tack, acknowledging that our school will probably be successful, and presents that as a reason for stopping us. Our school will have a negative impact on the neighbouring schools, apparently, soaking up all the most interested learners. In other words, a group of parents and teachers shouldn't be allowed to operate a state school just in case they do a better job than the local authority.

This goes to the heart of Fiona's objection to our project - and, indeed, to all outstanding state schools. Mediocrity across the board is preferable to a few beacons of excellence. If you allow for such disparities, the best schools will end up attracting the most motivated students and teachers and the majority will suffer.

That argument underestimates the galvanizing effect of competition. If my group succeeds, I hope we will kick-start a "free school" movement to rival those in Sweden, Chile and the United States. Allowing parents and teachers to set up new schools in these countries has not had a negative impact on existing schools. In Sweden, for instance, independent providers have been allowed to set up "free schools" since 1992 and today 17 per cent of Swedish children of secondary school age are educated at them. Yet standards in maintained schools have risen.

The tragic thing about Fiona is that she is a defender of a system of state education that has only ever existed in her imagination. The Stalinist model she campaigns for, in which people have no choice but to send their children to the nearest "bog-standard comprehensive", has never found favour with the British public and never will.

It's time Fiona Millar hung up her boxing gloves and conceded defeat. We may not end up doing any better than she has at William Ellis, but it's an experiment that should be allowed to go ahead.

In the blue corner.


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