A glossy leaflet arrives through the letterbox at Woodford Towers from advocates of a new 'free school' in my local area. This is inspired by the crackpot policy of the Tories and their Lib Dem pals that lets any group of parents club together and start educating children at an institution they create themselves. The founders can take over a disused office block, for example, and teach the kids transcendental meditation, if that's the vibe they dig, man. (If you think I'm joking, I've already seen the ads for a local meditation school.)
Leaving aside the obvious political and philosophical questions - why I should be allowed to set up a 'free' school, but not a free hospital or police force, for example - the policy initiative seems to have created a playground for the under-employed middle class, whereas it was originally trumpeted as a way of raising standards in tough, inner-city areas.
Commendably, the instigators of the free school proposal in my area want the new establishment to be open to 'all children...regardless of faith, ability or gender.' I think that's what's usually called a comprehensive, isn't it? And given that we're talking about an affluent area of the London suburbs where there are a couple of pretty good secondary schools already and a couple more really good secondary schools, it's difficult to see what this new institution will add. I'm told little about its ethos or proposed curriculum and the main argument in its favour seems to be about meeting demand in an era of growing school populations. Couldn't we do something boring and predictable like providing cash for the local authority to expand provision? No. That's too socialistic, I guess.
What fascinates me is the way in which the proponents are trying to galvanise support for their 'campaign'. I am supposed to 'like' them on Facebook, sign up at their website etc. Sheer numbers of supporters seem to determine whether a project gets a green light or not.
This will all end in tears. Kids schooled in a particular environment and taught a non-standard curriculum are part of an experiment. How will employers value their education and qualifications in the future, do you think?
A future generation is being condemned to a world of dog-eat-dog education where the value of their school is measured in thumbs up on a social network.
I'll keep you posted on the marketing material I see and issue a challenge. What's the weirdest 'free school' proposal you've encountered to date? Email me the info and I'll feature it on WARTE.