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Tory teacher launches campaign for flagship ‘Free School’

Katharine Birbalsingh wowed the Conservative Party conference with her tales of a south London school, which was “out of control” supposedly because white liberal teachers were afraid of punishing black pupils. Jeremy Drinkall reports on plans to put her right wing educational theories to the test by opening a “Free School” in the area

Free schools – a tool for selection and privatisation

Free schools are Education Secretary Michael Gove’s big new idea. They are based on charter schools in the USA and free schools in Sweden. The ideology behind them is that of freedom from bureaucratic rules, which stifle innovation, and expanding choice for parents. In a sense they are “Academies Plus” – except a) they are set up from scratch, rather than converted local authority schools, and b) they have additional freedoms, including crucially the right to employ non-qualified teachers.

Gove is at pains to emphasise that free schools will be – unlike their American and Swedish models – not-for-profit and that they will not be able to select their pupils for admission. However, neither claim is plausible.

Despite the rhetoric about local schools to fit local needs, Charter Schools typically contract out their business operations to large corporations. One of the biggest, White Hat Management, which has gobbled up $230 million of the state education budget since 2009, is currently being sued for failing its 20,000 students and refusing to reveal how it spends the money. Three-quarters of Swedish free schools are run for profit.

The truth is that profit will be made in the UK because free schools will contract out, too. Michael Gove’s New Schools Network already puts parent groups in touch with private providers of school services, such as Lilac Sky Schools.

On the question of selection, Gove is simply hiding behind a myth: that the current admissions procedures are non-selective. In fact, selection is rife in the state schools system, it grew with the advent of school league tables and then it ballooned again with academies.

Free schools will provide a further thrust in the direction of school segregation. By establishing reserved rights for parent board members, gearing the curriculum and ethos to exclude would-be entrants and freeing themselves from local authority control, free schools will effectively select their intake – after all, who will police them? Through pupil exclusion, they will be able to deselect – or reject – unwanted elements at any time thereafter. As we shall see, Birbalsingh is fully aware of this loophole.

Finally, before moving onto Birbalsingh’s campaign, it is important to examine the Tories’ claim that Britain needs more competition between schools to drive up standards. This is the claim of every free marketer – and it is utterly false.

Neither the Swedish nor the US models have driven up standards in their countries; both are ranked below the UK by respected international bodies, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). While there have been some successful schools in both programmes, there have been even more – and more remarkable – failures. More importantly, the overall level of education has suffered – Sweden’s schools falling by over 40% in its TIMSS scores during the period of its free schools experiment, i.e. between 1995 and 2007.


Birbalsingh’s proposal

So will Katharine Birbalsingh’s proposed free school be one of the successful ones? Will it drive up standards across Lambeth and south London, as she claims? Only time will tell, but let’s look at the proposal inasmuch as we know about it.

The Michaela Community School will, if its application is successful, open in September 2012 on the old site of the Lilian Baylis School. It is currently unfit for and would cost the taxpayer millions to repair.

It will cater for 120 secondary school students per year and have a sixth form, in total 820 pupils. In other words, it will replicate the provision supplied by Lilian Baylis Technology School, a mere 400 metres away, despite the fact that there is no shortage of mixed, secular state secondary schools with rising standards in the area. Birbalsingh quotes out-of-date statistics that 50% of Lambeth secondary students school out of the borough, when the 2011 figure for unplaced students is just 59.

Ms Birbalsingh claimed at a recent open meeting in Camberwell that there is no school in the area that offers homework clubs, Mandarin classes, and a “discipline code with concrete sanctions” or encourages students to aspire to university. She said that existing local schools fail to explain to pupils how they are doing in comparison to expectations and what they need to do to achieve their targets. All of these claims are false.

Fair enough to try and sell your product on the market Gove has created, you might think. But such putting down of other schools in the community undoes any pretence the Tories hold about free schools and open competition helping all schools raise their standards. Birbalsingh’s cavalier trashing of schools in south London has already led to the collapse of student applications to her old school, St Michael All Angels in Camberwell – despite the fact that she only worked there for four weeks. Mud sticks.

But the real selling point for the Michaela school is its mimicry of public (i.e. private) schools, like Eton and Westminster, with a strong emphasis on competition, humiliation and discipline. On her video, promoted on the BBC website, Birbalsingh claims that children need to “fail so that, in the end, they can succeed”. It features throughout an old-fashioned blackboard and abacus, and ends with the camera sweeping over a cane and a dunce’s hat to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ song: You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

Well, the irony of Birbalsingh’s choice of a Stones’ song that glorifies both rebellion against authority and murder/death may well challenge even David Cameron’s alleged liking of the Jam, and it waits to be seen whether she will defy the European Court of Human Right on corporal punishment of children, but the message is clear. Back to the 1950s!

So what is the Michaela school offering that is different? Latin, an extra hour and 40 minutes of lessons every day, Oxbridge entrance exam and interview training, “zero tolerance” with regard to rudeness or breaking discipline both in and out of school, strictness on the correct wearing of the school uniform and – most controversially of all – “benchmarking”.

Selection by intimidation

In part of course, this is an attempt to put off those parents and children who do not want Latin and a highly academic curriculum or to be still in school at 5pm when all their friends and neighbours are out. Or know they would unlikely to be able to sustain the very high behavioural expectations over 5 or 7 years – especially at a time of economic stagnation in an area of high deprivation.

Ms Birbalsingh simply says, “Then maybe Michaela is not for them.” However the point is that this has an effect on every other school in the area. If 800 children from those families who are most able to provide the home environment that can support these expectations are removed from the system, then the old grammar/secondary modern school divide will emerge.

Middle class and some aspirational working class parents will opt for the school that mimics the public school system that they cannot afford and is paid for by the state. The vast majority of working class parents will find the schools their children attend are both robbed of resources (Michaela will take funds from money originally put aside for the school buildings programme and IT) and of a layer of stable young people, who should provide an important part of the mix that a good comprehensive system relies on for success.

And this is where the Tories’ educational policies really point towards: the break-up of the comprehensive education system and the return to the grammar/secondary modern divide. It failed the majority of children at the age of 11, with millions leaving without any qualifications at all. Parents, teachers and young people hated it so much they successfully fought for its destruction. Now, the Tories are trying to smuggle it back in, ironically in the name of “parent power”.


Naked competition

Birbalsingh’s big selling point, however, is that black youths need “tough love”: harsh sanctions, zero tolerance and “benchmarking”. The latter is a system whereby every child will be marked against each other. They will know if they are first in the class or 30th, top of the year or bottom. If this sounds bad, then school board member and guru Tony Swale’s comment, “No one remembers who came second” should send a shudder down parents’ and pupils’ spines.

The free school’s “knowledge rich” curriculum is intended to stress the importance of knowing facts, rather than questioning the reasons behind them: basics first. This chimes with the expectation that students will obey instructions at all times, wear their uniforms with military precision and, as Swales pointed out, “not eat Kentucky Fried Chicken in the street”.

Here the capitalist values of obedience, discipline and repression are seared onto the young people. According to Birbalsingh, it is the reason why those who emerge from the public school system of Eton and Westminster “rule the world”. In fact, Michaela will rear very few “world leaders”.

Its purpose, of course, is to train up a layer of middle and junior managers and NCOs, who are ingrained with the values of free market capitalism. And, even more importantly, the corollary: those young people who are not “selected” to attend Michaela school will end up attending schools populated by the “unselected”. It does not take a genius to grasp that, once students from the more stable, more aspirant families have been taken out of the pool, the others will suffer.


Campaign to stop the free school

It is clear that Michaela will be no ordinary free school. It has huge backing from Tory party central office. And it is rushing to complete its application process in just two weeks – by 1 June. But the local NUT branch and activists have launched a campaign to stop Birbalsingh and her friends from succeeding. We will be leafleting primary schools and may be holding a public meeting to challenge the free school proposers to a debate.

We have a short period in which to get our message across, explaining not only why the Michaela experiment is based on shoddy educational theories, but also what the medium and long term effects on the community will be: less choice and poorer education for the majority.

For more information or to get involved, visit freeschools.sayingno.org


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