Free Schools – Liberty or Libertarian?

Today (20th October), Nick Clegg stood aside from Michael Gove (and David Laws) in seeking to ensure that teachers in Free Schools are properly trained (to QTS standards), that there is an educational centre based on the national curriculum and that all students should have access to good meals at school.

The basic trend of this government is to free up schools from the central doctrines of Local authority rules and requirements whilst ensuring that they remain financed by the centre. This is one aspect of Michael Gove’s belief in free “choice” – which is commendable in principle but hits at least three snags: people in communities do not want to have a variety of bad choices; there are too many issues at stake for lay-people (no matter how capable and well-meaning) to adequately assess all the issues before making a choice;   choice requires a real sense of competition and access to that competitive environment and a real market.

There is in England a Brave New World of Education where the division is between the alpha model of private education, the beta model of good state schools and the epsilon model of all the rest. The advent of Free Schools is meant to blow away the model so that where problems exist in a location, excellence is developed through the ability of the market and hard-working people – untrammeled by centralist doctrine. Supporters of this market-notion state that the disasters of the Bradford Free School – Al-Madinah – show that the market works – that bad schools will be outed and forced to improve or close.

Choice in Education

The ability to choose rests upon an assumption that those with a choice will receive their preferred choice.  In a parliamentary report from 2010, it was estimated that 85% of those in the secondary school state system received their first choice, but this obscured the much lower rate in cities.

Of course, choice is only as good as what is offered and this is critical. Real choice would enable those choosing to be able to select the right school that will enable the student to gain real value and advantage in his / her education. That means the provision of a school of a good standard. Choice in many areas obscures the fact that those making the choice have to select the “best on offer” – all may be well below the required standard that they would “choose” if they had the chance.

This is why there are efforts to raise standards across the board in the hope that all will, eventually, have a choice that contains better schools – those of a sufficiently high standard to satisfy all the requirements.

In this feverish search for choice and raised standards (and we all welcome a considered drive to improve), choice has been thrust forward as a key reason behind Free Schools.

Freedom from Local Authorities

With the advent of Academies, schools (especially secondary state schools) are progressively moving out of the local authority sphere of influence. Cut-backs in the latter mean that their central education capabilities have been curtailed and the drive for a more centralized control by the Ministry of Education continues – while purporting to be a drive for more local control by each school.

For many schools, this freedom is positive. Local authorities are hugely variable in capability, ingenuity and innovation – as well as funding. This meant that, in many areas, schools were held back and can now progress untrammeled by local authority (often “political”) involvement.

However, this freedom also means that Academies, while having to adhere to national Admission rules, do not have to co-ordinate admissions with the local authority. The impact of this is yet to be determined.

Progressive Freedom

Academies have substantial powers over teacher pay and curriculum in many areas but Free Schools (based mainly on local demand requirements in a range of areas – including Faith) are not beholden to the national curriculum nor the requirement to select teachers based on existing training norms. In addition, the debate about local “need” may also strain credulity. Faith schools, for example, are the first in line on this basis but the desire of those to provide faith schools may not be in line with those locally who may oppose this. Unlike planning permission, the process is more about the desire of those in favour than reaching a local conclusion based on what makes sense for the local community as a whole. The school as a local community hub (so important with the demise of the Church) is now forgotten in the search for market results.

Nick Clegg’s intervention may not go far enough and seems to typify those who find fault with the Gove vision. That vision is about freedom and choice but is not sufficiently strong in its understanding of what is needed in the local community. Local authorities purported in the past to have this responsibility but failed in many cases to carry out that remit. So, just like Margaret Thatcher’s response in London (to abolish the GLC), where possible local remits are abolished and individual schools set up – with progressively more independence.

This disruption, between local authority or central government, between local (often bad) control and school independence, means that local areas may lose the chance to have a substantial uplift in education capability because individual schools are now encouraged to go it alone. Without some understanding of overall local need, the progressive freedoms of the market (in a confused market economy like education) will throw up abnormal results – often by chance. Economics is not strong on education.

The ability of individual schools (often under pressure from Boards) may not be high. The ability of many Free Schools to chose teachers not based on rigorous teacher training standards is also dubious.

Choice of what?

Michael Gove hopefully has learned a lot in the last ten years. When he was in opposition, I personally asked him for his views on whether there was scope for schools to benefit from better procurement and management of IT through some association or collaboration of state schools. Over 3,000 secondary schools typically pursued their own aims and ambitions in this area. Recruitment is tough in this sector as salaries are not competitive for strong IT staff. Imagine a company with 3,000 subsidiaries all being allowed to go their own way!

Gove’s written response to me was interesting. His view was that individual schools should stand on their own feet and that, if they had poor IT, parents would exercise choice and not send their children to such schools.

This outlined to me Gove’s prioritization and focus on choice. It puts too much weight on parent’s assumed knowledge of even backroom systems like IT – which almost no parents would investigate. It suggests that perfect information is not just available but understandable and assessable. This seemed to be a nonsensical response at the time but seems to underlie much of Conservative thinking about so-called “choice”. We should be ensuring that all schools have great IT – a fundamental requirement in the modern, high-tech working society – not allowing any to fall by the wayside. This should not be about allowing schools to fail – but, ensuring they all succeed: not sink or swim, but ensure they can swim.

Parental choice has to be reasoned choice that makes sense to parents. Each area may have different needs. In some, there may be great schools but a requirement to spend £500,000 on a house to get into one; in other areas, there may be one excellent school that attracts the best students and the rest are allowed to wallow in mediocrity at best; in other areas, grammar schools may dominate; in other areas, reduced capital investment may not attract good staff – the list goes on and no two areas are the same.

Choice is what is highlighted each time a Free School comes before local people. It is, in itself, meaningless because no-one really understands it. Choice of what is less a real choice than a funding decision as a Free School may be the only way to acquire the funds locally to do something of real value.

So, Nick Clegg is on the right lines in trying to firm up key elements of Free Schools but there is more to do. Liberals (or anyone that shares a desire to benefit local communities) need to bring in some form of assessment that enables local people to gauge their options. In addition to the assessment of individual schools and our focus on league tables, parents have to acquire information on the local area’s overall education capabilities (not the Borough itself) into which Free Schools, Academies, Private education and other schools exist.

This is not a call for local authorities to get back its old powers, but for educational assessment that enables citizens to acquire immediate information on their local areas (their catchment area) and for decision-makers (often central government) to actively show that they have not just taken these assessments into account but are actively pursuing change in areas of real priority.

This way, choice allied to progressive and continuous overall improvement can be parsed into the local framework and maybe enable real decisions to take place: localism that means something rather than a free-for-all.

Politics – the battle lines between citizens and the state

 

Why the party system is breaking down

Communications leads to changes

 

Types of government have changed with changes in communications. When communications was by word of mouth, strong central government through despotic leaders was the norm.

 

With the advent of the printing press, information could be made more available and (certainly in the West) education could be obtained more widely, leading to different forms of government and wider emancipation.

 

Now, with the dramatic communication changes wrought through mobile telephony and the internet, information (of all types, good and bad, intelligent and unintelligent) is made available throughout the world and the strains in our current governing structures are made worse.

 

The Arab Spring erupted for a variety of reasons but spread through new communication devices and systems. The organization of mass campaigns becomes easier and the attempts to stifle protests by shutting down websites and demanding changes to other, online capabilities is progressively harder.

 

Is the Party over?

 

Political parties are now finding it tougher to piece together coherent and wide-ranging policies that appeal to more than a small percentage of a nation’s population. In a word of communication possibilities, single-issue lobbying is becoming the norm. Politicians in the west continuously argue for choice but the choice that is now on offer, between major political parties without a cause (such as labour rights in the early 20th Century) is not welcomed.

 

As wealth increases (as we develop into the Affluent Society of Galbraith – see:   https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/the-affluent-society-and-social-balance/

 

so do the opportunities to connect with a wide range of issues – be they environmental, health, sport, education, self-help, business, charitable or whatever. The numbers of people that engage with politics becomes less because people are engaging with single issues. Parties rarely have a key message that intoxicates any more and are driven to compromise on a wide range of issues that appeal to no-one in particular. This means that voting may be on single issues or they are watered down to choose a party that is less bad than the others.

 

 

 

 

Greece – democracy’s floundering founder

 

In Greece, so dismally rent by bad government and economic disaster, the situation is playing out. Here, the people cannot elect a majority party to power and are being forced to vote again until they do. The party system is broken in Greece and single-issue politics dominates to the extent that the people have made their choice but the politicians don’t like it and tell them to do it again.

 

This makes a mockery of democracy in the home of democracy – an irony that is surely not lost on anyone but a potential disaster. The problem is that even if the Greek people are forced to make a different decision in a few weeks’ time, there is no guarantee that the result will be accepted by them and the demonstrations will begin again. The parties need to adapt to the will of the people by ensuring that the single-issues are wrapped into an acceptable set of policies that the majority are willing to accept – they should have done this first time around and it speaks volumes about the paucity of leadership in Greece that this has not happened.

 

Centralisation no longer works

 

A problem with the European Community which has been exacerbated by the Euro is that political judgements made after the end of the Second World War are not relevant to the 21st Century. While trading blocks are an economic decision, a political block (aimed at tying Germany into a framework which would prevent it from the belligerence of two world wars and providing Europe with a seat at any political table for many years to come) becomes a heavy weight to bear in a world that is likely to eschew centralization.

 

Vastly improved communications (including air travel) means that real globalization is the norm. Opportunities are now in place for a dramatic de-centralisation of political power in many countries and between them. Even if we need the UN, the WTO and other world-wide organisations, they are based on a 19th Century division based on the nation-state. We witness daily the huge challenges that this brings in places like Sudan or Iraq – nation states drawn by the pencils and rulers of 19th Century European civil servants, where older affiliations strike at the heart of the state philosophy.

 

In developed nations, the struggle is less severe but the economic stresses that are beginning to tear at countries like Greece, Spain (where half of the young people are unemployed), Ireland (the scene of a mass exodus after so many years of its reversal) are leading to a disenfranchisement. Italy, with an unelected government of “technocrats”, is surely not the model for the future – where votes are wasted and bankers rule from the centre.

 

A New Model needed?

 

New Model politics has to take into account the needs of a better-educated and often single-issue motivated people who need politicians that are there for them.

 

The political parties have to show themselves to be free from corruption and independent of being in politics for what they can get out of it.

 

The parties have to work together where needed and confront the problems of the past that means that each party opposes each other.

 

In the UK, this has been shown very clearly when, after a hundred years of parties being set up to oppose others, the Coalition of Tories and Liberal Democrats is set upon by many (especially a quixotic press) because they are trying to work together!

 

This is likely to be the norm. It means that coalitions will be the norm. This will be the political “new normal” to go with the new normal posited for our economic future.

 

Single-issues dominate our thinking and generate enthusiasm more than any political party in the developed world. It is only where democracy is new that parties with major and wide-ranging programmes gain real enthusiasm – which is usually dissipated quickly. Elsewhere, massive disenfranchisement is continuous and leads to a dissatisfaction with politics and politicians.

 

Parties are now the vested interests that need to change. We should see a situation where each party’s manifesto shows clearly what they would do together if that is the way it turns out – not be scared of the prospect because it may lose some votes early on. This is a big change but essential as voters’ (citizens’) needs over single issues dominate and they have no way to select a range of issues from those on offer – only a range of parties with massive ranges of policies.

 

In a world of perceived “choice”, the parties need to change to excite and enthuse or we will suffer the continued estrangement of citizens and political parties that will not result well.