Friday 10 June 2011

Don't be Seduced by Free Schools

I must start with a confession:  I worked as a volunteer a 'free school' back in the early 70s. The school was an ordinary terraced house in Friendly Street, Deptford and we taught about 14 11-16 year olds, mainly boys. Many were from old Romany families who were in the scrap iron businesses operating from under the railway arches. The other teachers included a dance teacher and a rock musician. The work was tough but fun with a mixed focus on basic skills and more creative pursuits. A highpoint was when they appeared in an improvised BBC TV play based on their lives.

Most of the children were school refusers or regular truants but they also included what were known at the time as school phobics. Similar projects mushroomed across London at the time, often started by community organisations and settlements who found out of school kids hanging around their doors during the day. The workers in the projects often started from a libertarian critique of the state school system and formed an organisation called LEAP (London Education Alternative Projects).

At the same time other students were actively rebelling in the state schools and some schools began to set up Units for Disruptive Children. These were often off-site and sometimes in poor accommodation. Troublesome children were sent to them and the staff tried to offer an alternative curriculum. Although the Units were funded by the Inner London Education Authority, and therefore part of the 'system', their teachers joined LEAP as they saw themselves as providing an alternative to the 'system'.

By this time I was working in mainstream primary education in North Westminster and involved in anti-racist work in the local community. A group of parents, teachers, school students and community activists met regularly at the 510 Centre in Harrow Road to discussion educational and other issues. One of the attenders was Paul Boateng, then a young lawyer at the Paddington Law Centre, concerned particular with the 'sus' laws.  It soon became clear that racism in schools was a big problem and that one institutional response in particular was a great concern to parents. Many black children, mainly boys, were being labelled 'disruptive' and sent to these units. The curriculum varied between units but often seemed to involve keeping the children occupied with sports and adventure playground  type activities rather than educating them in either basic skills or academic subjects. Few of the units were able to enter the children for public examinations and the claim that the children could return to mainstream school, after a spell in the unit, was seldom achieved in reality.

Local community campaigns were launched against the units as parents began to see them as similar to the ESN schools (old terminology: Educationally Subnormal) exposed by Bernard Coard (1) earlier where children were labelled on the basis of racist stereotypes. There were disproportionate numbers of black boys in Disruptive Units just as there had been in ESN schools. In our campaigning we began to call the Units 'Sin Bins'.  I wrote and spoke on the issue widely at the time and a key issue that arose was the concept of 'disruptive'. This label was a negative one attached to the child and took what he was 'disrupting' as the norm - his behaviour was the problem rather than the institution he was disrupting. We sought to replace 'disruptive' with 'disaffected' so that we could examine what the children were disaffected from: the school. Our focus soon revealed the problem of racist attitudes on the part of some teachers, low expectations and an inappropriate curriculum.

Thirty years later in 2005, I was asked to be a member of a panel discussing a new book: 'TELL IT LIKE IT IS: how our schools fail Black children' (2).  The meeting at Harlesden Library was crowded with angry and frustrated parents who still felt that their children were being treated unfairly in the system with the disproportionate number of black boys excluded a big issue. The historical development seemed to be: ESN>Disruptive>Excluded. In addition there were other issues about the curriculum and setting for examinations. What emerged during the discussion was that after the closure of Sladebrook (now the independent Swaminarayan School) the Harlesden area lacked its own high school. Queens Park was some distance away and then there was the City Academy in Willesden and faith schools. People felt that  having no school of its own impacted on the community with no central, unifying focus of a school 'of and for' the local community, a beacon reflecting its positive aspects in terms of culture, ethos and aspiration. Several parents said they wanted to campaign for a new high school for Harlesden.

I have written on this blog before about the imbalance between the north and south of Brent (roughly divided by the North Circular Road) in terms of secondary school provision. During the debate over the ARK Academy in Wembley campaigners made the argument that what was required was a new high school in the south of the borough, not yet another one in the north of the borough. The Council denied this was the case but ear-marked 50% of the ARK places for children from the south of the borough who had to travel some distance across the North Circular to school.

The campaign for the new school to be in the south of the borough was lost but  now a group have come forward with a Free School proposal for  secondary school in the Harlesden/Willesden area. The suggestion is for a Ma'at school. U.S. exponents call it 'Afrikan Centred' education:
As used by the Ancient Africans, Ma'at was a concept that stood for "universal order." Ma'at represents reality in all its manifestations both spiritual and material. It is the divine force that encompasses and embraces everything that is alive and exists. As an ethical system, Ma'at is often discussed as seven cardinal virtues (truth, justice, righteousness, harmony, balance, reciprocity, and order).
Further information about what the Harlesden group stand for can be found on their website, including their policy of 'no exclusions'. LINK Although I respect the reasons for their Free School application and deplore the fact that they have been let down by successive Brent administrations, I have strong reservations about using the Coalition's free school policy to set up a new school. I think free schools will be divisive in several ways. They are paid for by the government and the money for them will be taken away from the local council funds, reducing money available to other schools. They are not democratically accountable in the same way as local authority schools are via the council and local elections. They do not have to employ qualified teachers and their buildings do not have to meet the quality standards of normal schools. Most importantly they will make planning for school places across the borough extremely difficult.

I am worried that in order to keep classes small the schools will have to make other sacrifices such as employ more unqualified staff and operate from unsuitable premises. The 'no exclusions' policy is laudable but hard to implement. The socialist educationalist Chris Searle, who worked for Maurice Bishop and Bernard Coard in Grenada,and contributed to 'Tell it Like it Is', tried to operate such a policy in Sheffield. Teachers tried to work with the policy but eventually the teacher unions took action against him as members found it hard to teach in those circumstance. There is a possibility that in some ways the free schools will end up with some of the deficiencies of the 'sin bins' - not  in educational philosophy but in teaching and building resources. Just as the Disruptive Units let the local authority off the hook in terms of making changes in the mainstream, there is a possibility that such a free school would do the same for existing secondary schools. Dissatisfied parents may be told, 'Why don't you apply for the Ma'at if your are not happy?'  I am torn because I am well aware that after more than 30 years of trying black parents and teachers will be asking, 'How much longer must we wait?'

I see academies and free schools as part of an attempt to break up and privatise the state system. I have plenty of criticisms of the state system myself and the Green Party has firm ideas on how it should change. LINK However, I don't think we should be seduced by the free school project. There are plenty of groups who want to put their own educational ideas into practice, and that includes some close to the Green Party LINK but there is a debate to be had about using spaces created by reactionary policies for progressive causes.  I will be urging proponents of this approach  to fight for changes in the state system to achieve their aims - not follow the free school route.

(1)  How the West Indian child is made educationally subnormal in the British school system: the scandal of the Black child in schools in Britain, Bernard Coard  (New Beacon Books 1971) [Reprinted in (2) below]
(2) Tell It Like It Is: How our schools fail Black children, Ed Brian Richardson (Bookmarks and Trentham Books 2005, reprinted 2007)

1 comment:

Martin Francis said...

My view is that if you want to run a school outside of local authority control you shouldn't get a single penny of state funding - whether that's trendy lefty progressive types or rightwing reactionary Toby Young types.

Local authority schools do often fail pupils just as the the court system fails people - but the answer is to make both better, not free schools or vigilante justice.

Cllr. Darren Johnson AM
Green Party