Guild set to be lobbying force for free schools

10th February 2012 at 00:00
Young expects group to take up role similar to that of HMC

He is the public face of the government's free school policy and is such a believer in the power of state-funded independent schools that he is setting up a second one in his local area.

And now Toby Young is establishing a "guild" of free schools that he hopes will allow them to share best practice and provide advice to groups looking to start a school of their own.

In setting up his West London Free School, Mr Young became an outspoken advocate of the policy and ensured that his initiative became the first to be rubber-stamped by education secretary Michael Gove. The author and journalist said that he would pass on his knowledge through the guild. "The idea is that it will enable us to speak with one voice, while also helping fledgling proposer groups," Mr Young said.

The guild will aim to work on three levels. The first will be to give advice on how to navigate the application process. The second will be to provide assistance to groups that have cleared the first hurdle and are in negotiations with the Department for Education. The final level will be for free schools to work together.

Mr Young said that he expects the guild to perform a similar role to the Independent Academies Association and the elite independent school organisation the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference.

It is hoped that the body will enable groups to lobby the government on behalf of free schools in a way that the New Schools Network, a charity that helps free school starters, cannot. The New Schools Network is barred from taking political stances because of its charitable status.

The idea of a guild chimes with the West London Free School ethos - the school's leader, former independent school head Thomas Packer, once described it as being a "grammar school for all". Mr Packer said that he is eager to see each of the 24 existing free school heads sign up to the guild.

"We have yet to set out a constitution, but I think that it will be important in supporting the family of free schools," he said. "We are fortunate to have a good relationship with our local authority, but others do not and it can make them vulnerable. Plus, it will prove invaluable to be able to share notes."

Critics of free schools have pointed to the fact that they are appealing to a particular set of parents rather than a community. The West London Free School, for example, provides a curriculum that specialises in the Classics, while others sell themselves as offering a more academic curriculum rather than a vocational one.

And recent research by Rachel Gooch, a primary school governor in Suffolk, suggested that free schools were taking, on average, only half as many pupils on free school meals as their neighbouring state schools.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of teaching union ATL, said that the term "guild" simply continued the notion of free schools being for the privileged.

"Obviously it's a good thing that free schools would have a mechanism to network and collaborate," Dr Bousted said. "A guild was a medieval trade union, so it is good that Toby Young is creating a framework for good working conditions.

"But in reality it is a faux romantic ideal that this guild will be a company of workers. All it is, is the publicist in Toby Young playing to the gallery."

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