Twenty-four free schools, which operate and are governed in a similar fashion to American charter schools, have opened their doors this schools year, merely 18 months after Education Secretary Michael Gove first inaugurated the new program. Toby Young, the author of “How To Lose Friends and Alienate People,” writes in the Telegraph about his efforts to establish one such school, the West London Free School which will begin classes this Friday with a ceremony led by Mayor of London Boris Johnson.
Although the free school program is generally looked upon as the product of the Conservative Party, Young points out that many parents in his own group don’t consider this an issue of politics. They are simply taking advantage of an opportunity to provide better education for their kids:
I’ve often been shocked by the hostility exhibited towards free schools by the other parties, but not nearly as shocked as the Labour-voters and Lib Dem-voters who are involved in setting them up. As far as they’re concerned, they’re doing what their parties have long been urging them to do – becoming community activists, setting up co-operatives, improving public services.
Young specifically calls out free school opponents like Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, and Fiona Millar for both needlessly politicizing the free school movement and dismissing the efforts of the parents as “amateur” for attempting to take on the burden usually reserved for the State, frequently doing so on purely volunteer basis.
According to Young, free schools are an alternative way to meet the educational needs of students who have been overlooked by the government. This argument seems be borne out by a recent Conservative Party press release trumpeting the fact that half of the newly opened schools are going to be serving 30% of England’s most deprived communities. But the findings, which came from the data provided by the Department of Education, contradict the results obtained by The Guardian, which hired an independent research firm to study the issue and concluded that middle-class households dominate the areas where the first free schools are set to operate.
Fullfact.org, which examined both studies, says that while DoE used fixed areas with average populations of 1,500, the research company used by The Guardian, CACI, looked at areas around the school encompassed by a 10-minute commute by car or bus.
As a result, the number of households included in their analysis varies massively from school to school – from only 648 households investigated in relation to Priors Free School in Warwickshire to 102,611 included in relation to ARK Atwood Academy, Westminister.
The West London Free School says that it “will be one of the best schools in the country, renowned for academic excellence, and capable of instilling world-beating ambition in all its pupils, no matter what their background.”