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Five myths about free schools debunked, alas

Toby Young is a hate figure for lefty educationalists (i.e. 99% of them) because he is a leading figure in setting up one of these “free schools”, deregulated state schools on the Swedish model that the coalition government hopes to introduce. In this article he carefully debunks five of the scare stories the left has spread about the free schools.

Though like all of us I am sure he has faults, Toby Young is a Good Thing. Free schools are not free and not perfect but are, or will be, a broadly Good Thing. The dissemination of true information in place of false is a Good Thing. Mr Young’s fivefold debunking is well worth reading if you wish to be better informed about the nearest thing to a Good Thing that has hit British state education in years.

It is sad that in almost every case I would have preferred the myth to be true. Here is why I wish Mr Young’s five debunked myths were not bunk after all.

Myth No. 1. “Money for free schools will come from ‘the extremely wasteful Building Schools For The Future’ budget.” Suzanne Moore, Mail on Sunday, July 11, 2010

I gather there has been some sort of row about this, which I would research if I didn’t have toenails to cut. Government money, like all money, is fungible. So long as you bear in mind that it all ultimately “comes from” – as in “is extracted by force from” – the taxpayer, you can think of it as coming from whatever government budget heading makes you happy. I would have been made happier by thinking it came from a notoriously wasteful budget.

Myth No. 2. “Free schools will have to find their pupils from somewhere, preferably poached from existing local schools, shrinking their budgets and possibly leading to a spiral of decline …” Fiona Millar, The Guardian, June 18, 2010

What the hell is wrong with poaching pupils from existing schools anyway? The very word “poaching” reveals a mindset that regards the children as the property of the schools. They are not. It would do most of the local schools (“local” being next to meaningless in this context other than as a means to arouse feelings of protectiveness; every school is located somewhere) a power of good to be put in fear of losing their pupils. They might have to take desperate measures to keep them; possibly even going so far as to provide an education. And if the dear, sweet local schools cannot or will not do that then let the spiral of decline commence, though a vertical downwards arrow of decline would be better.

Myth No. 3. “It’s freedom, in our view, to reduce the vision for 21st century schools to children being educated in a run-down flat over an off licence …” Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUWT, April 9, 2010

So long as they are educated, who cares where? The NASUWT is the least worst of all the teachers’ unions but even so I suspect that the real objection here is that young people emerging from run down flats to take up a scholarship at Oxford or Cambridge might suggest that the all money put into shiny school facilities does very little good.

(Mind you in debunking this one Toby Young twists the knife with delicacy: “Chris Keats also said in the same speech that the Conservatives’ Free Schools policy would favour the “pushy and privileged”. How? By enabling them to educate their children in run-down flats above off licenses? This is typical of the double-think at the heart of most Free School critiques. They are going to be run by a bunch of religious nutters in nissan huts at the bottom of their gardens and, at the same time, siphon off all the most motivated learners, thereby depriving neighbouring comprehensives of a vital resource.”)

Myth No. 4. Free Schools are a “vanity project for yummy mummies in West London”. Tristram Hunt, The Today Programme, May 18, 2010

Nothing could be a better omen of a project’s success than to have its fortunes linked to the vanity of a group famed for its (a) vanity and (b) success at getting what it wants.

Myth No. 5. “[P]ushy parents can set up a bijou academy free of any sane inclusive admissions policy …” Steve Pound MP, The Ealing Gazette, June 29, 2010

Toby Young says, “Not true. The admissions policies of Free Schools will have to be fully inclusive…” Oh, dear. Oh, damn. This was the most depressing debunking of all. I can’t put it any better than one of Mr Young’s commenters, sevendeuce, who says,

However, I can’t help feeling that you are allowing a very large cuckoo into the nest by accepting the existing admissions codes.

The failing schools that parents want to escape from are not failing because of their buildings, Heads or teachers. They are failing because of the presence of disruptive, unmotivated and sometimes violent pupils – often with disruptive, unmotivated and violent parents.

If you end up with exactly the same cohort of children from the locality as is present in the state schools, I’m just not sure you will see that much improvement.

You may be hoping to attract better teachers through freedom to pay more. That’s fair enough, but will the better teachers come if they are going to face the same disruptive kids as in the local Comp? I suspect not, unless the pay differential is huge. I think they will do what they do now, move to an independant school or elite state school.

It may be you are stuck with the Admission Code and have no choice. Then the only hope is to have a rigorous exclusion policy, with no appeals panels. Then perhaps the worst of the worst will be removed within a matter of days and their influence minimised.

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18 comments to Five myths about free schools debunked, alas

  • John K

    Anything oposed by scum such as Fiona Millar, Stephen Pound and Tristram Hunt must have something going for it.

    Having said that, a lot of the problems of ordinary comps are caused by the disruptive kids who don’t want to be there, and don’t want to learn. Why make them? They spoil the education of others, but despite being corralled in schools for 11 years, soon to be 13 years, leave barely able to read or write. So why make education compulsory? Have “free” education available if you like, but why force young adults to do something they don’t want to do, where they just disrupt the education of all the rest? If the little horrors don’t want to go to school, that’s fine by me, just so long as they don’t expect to get any dole.

  • Robert Speirs

    Just spread the rumor that the “free” schools are more academically demanding than the existing horrors. That will automatically keep the disruptives where they are and attract those parents who actually want education and not just baby-sitting for their children.

  • Alsadius

    We force kids to go to school because, even if the kids don’t like it, the adults they will become will presumably be grateful for it. It’s no different from a lot of other stuff we routinely force kids to do. Of course, a 17 year old isn’t a “kid” in any sane sense of the word, and doesn’t need to be forced into school, but it should be compulsory up to age 14-16. You simply can’t get by in the modern world without that much education.

    Now all we have to do is make that decade we have them for actually involve a worthwhile amount of education.

  • John K – yes. Here’s a posting I did years ago on the desirability of not educating those who have clearly demonstrated that they don’t want to be educated.

    My general position is the less compulsion the better. I’ve toyed with the ideal of having no compulsion.

    (If my link doesn’t take you straight to the relevant post, Ctrl-F for “Six year old expelled”)

  • John K

    We force kids to go to school because, even if the kids don’t like it, the adults they will become will presumably be grateful for it. It’s no different from a lot of other stuff we routinely force kids to do. Of course, a 17 year old isn’t a “kid” in any sane sense of the word, and doesn’t need to be forced into school, but it should be compulsory up to age 14-16. You simply can’t get by in the modern world without that much education.

    If, when they become adults, these tearaways decide they want to learn, I’m sure that can be arranged. As it stands, they may be forced into schools, but they cannot be forced to learn, they simply disprupt the lives of children who do want to learn. I realise you need an education to get by in the modern world, but these kids don’t get an education, they stop other children getting one!

    Of course, if we had no dole, then even the thickest kid might appreciate that he needed to make something of himself, because the state was not going to support him for life. Just a thought.

  • You don’t necessarily need a formal education to get by in the modern world, although, depending on the area of your interest, it can be helpful.

  • Gareth

    There is an option that rarely seems to merit a mention in the media discussion of ‘free schools’ – existing schools attracting the required moderating interest to get involved so that school can free itself from the bureaucracy.

    Everyone seems to be concentrating on either schools staying as they are and under the thumb of local education authorities or shiny new schools taking resources and pupils from those schools still under LEA management. I expect actual new schools to be the minority.

  • Jim

    @JohnK: perhaps qualification for benefits should be linked to passing a certain number of GCSEs? That might sharpen the minds of even the most nihilistic of teenagers.

  • good grief! this is all so similar to the rubbish that charter schools in America have had to debunk. it makes one inclined to believe in demonic possession: all the nay-sayers who hold hands and chant together about inclusion and higher standards are also somehow able to coalesce and be the first ones to make sure that higher standards and inclusion never occur anywhere. how do they do it? their common demons are all in cosmic link with one another, i guess.
    time for a complete exorcism of ‘public’ education worldwide.

  • JadedLibertarian

    The appalling situation in state schools that prompted this endeavour is exactly why we are home-schooling our wee girl.

    She is already counting and doing basic reading and would have been due to start primary school in August. When we asked a Primary 1 teacher about how our daughter would be accommodated her response was:

    “We discourage parents from teaching their children to read and count before primary 1, since we just need to give them busy work for the first year while the others catch up.”

    Yup, definitely home-schooling ;)

  • J.M. Heinrichs

    Try letting her practice with object-oriented maths: http://dsc.discovery.com/tv/future-weapons/games/cannon/cannon.html


  • Simon Jester

    [Education] should be compulsory up to age 14-16. You simply can’t get by in the modern world without that much education.

    Can’t you? Apart from the ability to read, write and do basic arithmetic*, what is learned at school that is so important to the rest of your life?

    * – debatable as it is whether schools actually attempt this; some would argue that Countdown does a better job of it.

  • pippip

    Brilliant article. More like this on samizdata plx

  • John K


    Yes, that’s not a bad thought. Or at least maybe linking a good attendance record to eligibility for benefits. I don’t like the welfare state, but that’s a nice idea. However, I am sure it would be against the human rights of the tearaways to discriminate against them in this way, so it won’t happen.

  • Mike Lorrey


    Hows about challenging the Cameron government about why they are still including Michael Savage on their enemies list of people prohibited from entering Great Britain?

  • Simon,

    > Apart from the ability to read, write and do basic arithmetic, what is learned at school that is so important to the rest of your life?

    This question is based on a common myth about education: that it is a list of facts each of which is either directly useful or not. For any one fact, it is probably true that removing it from a person’s education merely removes their ability to apply that one fact. But for the broad accumulation of facts that make up an education, it is not true. Miss a few science lessons and you know nothing about Boyle’s Law or genes, but you still know what science is. Miss every science lesson and you have an entire way of thinking missing from your experience.

    I do agree with you, though, that this is a hypothetical argument that would be more worth having in a world where school works.

    Julie Birchill once wrote that school works for about 80% of kids, 10% should be removed and given something useful and physical to do, and 10% should be left to themselves in a big room full of books.

  • Paul Marks

    The big problem with the “free schools” is that they are governement funded.

    This means that their “freedom” will, in the end, turn out to be an illusion.

    The regulations on admission (“how dare you think of admission on ability”) is only the first sign of this.

  • Paul Marks

    Of course, like Natalie, when I read the leftist attacks on Free Schools, my thoughts were “if only these attacks were not myths – if only they were all true”.