David Cameron's RADICAL IDEA

Article excerpt

Peter Gregory investigates the introduction of school choice in the United Kingdom.

For all the criticism it has received, the Cameron government in Britain has undertaken at least one transformative and visionary reform since its inception. That is, the introduction of free schools in the British education system overseen by Education Secretary Michael Gove.

Twenty-four free schools operated throughout the country during the last school year with 55 opened this spring and another 1 14 to open next year. This builds on the 203 schools opened under the Blair governments academies program. These schools are offering parents and students of all income levels an affordable alternative to Britain's broken state education system- a system that spits out 100,000 pupils each year who are functionally illiterate.

Similar to the Swedish free school program that began in the 1990s and the Charter School program in the United States, a free school is a school that is founded by parents, teachers, companies, faith groups or other community groups independently of the local state education authority. This autonomy enables free schools to avoid many of the intractable problems in British state education.

The schools are still governmentfunded and free for students. And they still have to comply with the standard admissions code that applies to all state schools. But in taking responsibility for education from politicians and bureaucrats and giving it to local teachers and parents, the similarities between free schools and their traditional state counterparts end there.

Free schools have much greater flexibility over what curriculum they offer students. This not only gives parents choice over what their children are taught, but enables free schools to avoid many of the pitfalls of the standard British curriculum.

Conservative journalist Toby Young founded the West London Free School where Latin is compulsory for all students. He describes how, critics of the school said it was unrealistic to make Latin mandatory because it's simply too difficult for most children. Better to reserve Latin for the top set and have the rest do media studies' However, the school's focus on what Young describes as a classical liberal education has contributed to over 1000 children applying for 120 places, making it the most over-subscribed state secondary in Hammersmith and Fulham.

Free Schools are also able to make better staffing decisions as they have been able to remain free of the vice-like grip teaching unions hold over schools in Britain. Katharine Birbalsingh, a former teacher who famously denounced the British state education system at the 2010 Conservative Party conference and who is a champion of the free schools movement, laments that in the last 40 years only 18 teachers have been dismissed for incompetence in the British state system. She says that unions, 'bully head teachers. . .and degrade the teaching profession by ensuring that poor teachers can remain in their posts and give the rest of us a bad name.'

But free schools don't just offer a higher standard of teaching because they can sack bad teachers; they also attract very good ones. Teachers want to work at free schools because of the dynamic curriculum, improved discipline and renewed sense of mission. Young reports that over 500 teachers applied for the first six full-time positions at his school. …