Why parent-run schools are my idea of hell

26th March 2010 at 00:00

Would you like to work in a school run by parents? It sounds like an anxiety dream to me: "I was in my pants, my markbook had turned into a snake and my school was run by parents!"

The Tories promise to make it easier for parents to start their own schools by letting them do so independently of their local authority. The schools will be privately run but state funded - a model inspired by American and Swedish "free schools".

Ah, Sweden. Land of miracles, where Ikea was founded by a 17-year-old boy. No one thinks that starting a school will be like assembling a flatpack house. Yet there is a Scandinavian elegance about the application form provided by the New Schools Network, a charity run by a former Tory education adviser to help people start a new school.

The form says: "Please avoid jargon." O, brave new world! The New Schools Network also provides a translation of the Swedish application form, which is as plain as a plank: "If faith school, explain content." In eight lines. Wow.

So far, so smooth. Yet how "free" will these schools be? Unlike the Swedish free schools, they will not be allowed to make a profit. This means they "risk failure", says Anders Hultin, the Swedish free schools creator. Also, while "free" of local authority control, they will be "fully accountable to... Government for their results". The message is clear: use whatever ingredients you like, but produce meatballs.

I wonder how many parents will run the school when the last little Johnny has left? "Once those parents move on, the school becomes just like any other," says Jonathan Fingerhut, who set up the Jewish Community Secondary School in Barnet, north London, opening in September. Toby Young, who wants to start a free school in west London, is now in talks with two Swedish for-profit companies to ensure "continuation" by running his institution.

How would all this close the poverty gap? We are told that free schools would raise standards for all by creating competition. Yet how would it help struggling schools if money follows the "free" ones? And how can a comprehensive with 1,000 pupils compete with a free school of 50? Teacherpupil ratios matter, and that is not a level playing field.

Also, how would free schools unite the "broken society" that the Tories have cheered us all up by describing? Their history in Sweden is one of social segregation, not cohesion. Dr Susanne Wiborg, an expert on Scandinavian education, has said that in Denmark, "free schools are used by the middle classes to remove their children from schools (with) increasing numbers of immigrants' children". Young wants his school to give children from varied backgrounds a classical education. Yet isn't his curriculum, with its compulsory three years of Latin, likely to attract a certain type?

Free schools are the ultimate expression of "parent power", a favourite cross-party vote winner. They would also be its ultimate test. They could be strange places to work in. A parent's own children matter more than everyone else's. So there's a skewed perspective - or, as JD Salinger put it: "Mothers are all slightly insane." That's what might make free schools fun to work in: the fights.

Right now, parents are united by a common enemy: "the system" that let down little Tristan or whoever. Once they get their school, feathers will fly. "Ideology and Conflict in Parent-Run Free Schools", a paper by William A Firestone, argues that "internal conflict and schism are a frequent cause of the demise" of these schools, whose estimated "average lifespan is 18 months".

Parents fighting each other! I'd pay to see that. Firestone cites another study in which, after two years, "three of the schools... were defunct while two more had suffered membership splits giving rise to four new schools". Well, that's one way to create more schools, I suppose. By the way, that paper was published in 1976.

A little educational history would benefit these parents. Young is scathing about the "progressive educational agenda". Yet his school will owe its existence to a shift rooted in the "progressive" Sixties and Seventies. That was when the teacher-parent relationship started to become an "equal partnership".

Parents starting a school are forming a tribe, and to do this you need to simplify your enemy. Ignorance makes that easier. "There are two types of comps: the good ones in middle-class suburbs and affluent rural areas... and the rest," says Young. So a good comp in a deprived part of Liverpool doesn't count. He needs to learn about value-added scores, and fast. Free schools will not be able to select according to ability.

Ultimately, "Swedish-style free schools run by parents" won't be free, won't be run by parents, and this isn't Sweden. I have a better idea, though it won't win votes: parents running families. Radical!

In 2020, we'll see headlines like, "Free schools: the end of the line for parent power?" Tumbleweed will roll across their playgrounds and crows will caw from Ikea climbing frames. One of those crows will be me.

Catherine Paver, Writer and part-time English teacher.

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