Why parent-run schools are my idea of hell

16th April 2010 at 01:00

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 Conservatives 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".

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? 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 describe? Their history in Sweden is one of social segregation, not cohesion. Mr 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". They would also be its ultimate test. They could be strange places to work. 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 places to work: the fights. Right now, parents are united by a common enemy: "the system". Once they get their school, feathers will fly.

A little educational history would benefit these parents. Mr 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 Mr 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!

Catherine Paver is a writer and part-time English teacher.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today