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Are ‘free schools’ too free?

The 70s was a strange era; following an age of flowers and freedom and preceding a decade of Tories and synthesisers. It was a time of transition and change, experimentation and innovation. In retrospect, it seems that the Government’s focus was taking hippies off their highs and the impoverished out of pre-fab houses. It was the time to try new things.

The arguments in favour of these schools were that they let children explore what interested them, prioritising self-development over the intellectual

The concept of the ‘free school’ was borne in the 70’s and at the time they were described by most local authorities as ‘anarchic’. This is because the schools had no timetable, no set curriculum, and the pupils had the freedom to do what they wanted. The arguments in favour of these schools were that they let children explore what interested them, prioritising self-development over the intellectual. Free school pupils often neglected academia altogether, instead ‘learning’ through interaction with other pupils.

Nowadays, things are a little different; a ‘free school’ is set up by a local group that feels the nearby state schools are not providing adequate education for their children. It is most often, in my opinion, peeved parents who open these new schools, deeming the curriculum offered by the local comprehensive not good enough for their precious darlings. Under the watchful eye of Michael Gove, 331 of these free schools have been established, and many people call them his ‘pet project’ and argue that they are a waste of money.

She recalls doing no lessons whatsoever, instead opting to go to the zoo or ice rink as they were given the choice

To establish a free school, an application must be made to the Department of Education. Teachers at free schools are not required to hold teaching qualifications, which supporters argue inspires a creative environment for pupils. The notion of a free school may seem whimsical but, they are subject to the same inspections as state-run schools.

Back to the 70’s: a BBC News article earlier this month, described how Maureen Breen attended the Scotland Street free school in Liverpool. She recalls doing no lessons whatsoever, instead opting to go to the zoo or ice rink as they were given the choice. She soon got bored of being a pupil at the free school and left after just two years, however she went on to help run another free school. She now works as a secretary at a community health NHS psychiatric unit. However, it was not an easy task to get there. She recalls her biggest regret being her lack of qualifications. She was encouraged at Scotland Road to try lessons and do exams but she didn’t see the point at the time.

Somewhat controversially, I do not believe that a lack of basic skills would hold these students back in the society we live in

A valid, although perhaps a little cynical, concern relating to free schools is that they produce students fundamentally lacking in academic intuition. Somewhat controversially, I do not believe that a lack of basic skills would hold these students back in the society we live in. With apps that are able to do basic (and extremely advanced) mathematics in milliseconds, voice-activated translators and every laptop in the world equipped with spell-checker, there seems little requirement for us to possess the knowledge that is so oft deemed as crucial to success. However, I will concede that literacy and numeracy are essential, even in the hi-tech lives that we lead.

It is clear that the free schools of the 70s would simply not fit in our unforgiving world. The social norm is that one attends school, picks up a piece of paper with some letters on it, qualifying one to perform certain tasks that follow. Free schools could not contend with this in the 70s, and most certainly cannot now.

Beth Thayne

Image courtesy of Anthony Catalano via Flickr

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