'Freedom' debate: be quick or you'll miss it

28th May 2010 at 01:00
Grab last chance for discussion before Tories' vast academy expansion becomes reality

"Freedom!" screeched Mel Gibson as he led his kilt-sporting rabble towards annihilation at the hands of King Edward's army in the silly denouement of the Nineties blockbuster Braveheart. Although this film tells us very little of value - except, perhaps, Mr Gibson's inability to master a Scottish accent - it does illustrate the passions that the idea of freedom can engender, even in a 13th-century highlander. In much the same way, emotions tend to run wild in early 21st-century Britain when "freedom" is mentioned in the same breath as "public sector reform".

Many think-tankers are guilty of trumpeting freedom as a be-all and end-all, as if giving public sector "units" (schools, hospitals, job centres) the right to run their own affairs will drive up results as a matter of course. "Just like that," as Tommy Cooper might have said.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum are those - in education, often the teaching unions - who fear freedom and the changes that it can bring to the rights and working conditions of their members. This, then, is why so much energy (and rage) is expended on Michael Gove's "free schools". Last month, for example, author and campaigner Toby Young and NUT hard-hitter Kevin Courtney entertained a TES Debate audience by kicking metaphorical lumps out of each other on the issue.

But we should put the free schools proposals to one side, if only temporarily. For there is a far more pressing and, frankly, extraordinary change already taking place that has the potential to change the landscape of English education in a way not seen since the introduction of the national curriculum over 20 years ago or the flowering of the comprehensive movement in the early Sixties.

This is the Conservative plan - and the proposed legislation started its parliamentary journey this week - to give all "outstanding" schools and their governing bodies the right to adopt academy status. A recent TES analysis suggested that hundreds may take up the opportunity as soon as this summer. Other schools will also be given the same right in time. In addition, the same Tory thinkers are pushing extraordinary proposals to exempt those same exceptional schools from full Ofsted inspections - as long as they maintain results and keep parents happy (page 1).

The fact that by September 2011 we may indeed see a sprinkling of free schools plying their wares is small-fry by comparison. We are now faced with the real possibility that in a few short months thousands of schools - primary and secondary - may be free of their local authority bosses and liberated from the constant fear of the Ofsted door-knock. These institutions may well enjoy more "freedom" than any state-funded schools since the 1944 Education Act.

So now is the time to have an urgent - but sensible - discussion about educational freedom. By the end of the summer it may be too late.

Ed Dorrell, News editor


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