On September 7, 120 children will walk through the gates of the West London Free School in Hammersmith, one of the first schools of its type to open in England. This will be a proud moment for me as the chairman of the board of governors and the leader of the group of parents that has set up the school.
Making it easier for parents, teachers and voluntary groups to start schools is one of the flagship social policies of the Coalition and the existence of our school is testimony to their determination to see this happen. My group has been labouring away on this project since August of 2009, but we only started to make real progress when Michael Gove became the Secretary of State for Education. Since then, 323 voluntary groups have submitted proposals to the Department for Education. The West London Free School will be one of 24 free schools opening this September, with more to follow next year.
The free schools policy is controversial, with the teaching unions being particularly hostile, but most of the criticisms are based on simple misunderstandings. For instance, some people have assumed that if a group of parents have set up a school then they will run it, too. If your child’s appendix burst, you wouldn’t take him to a patient-run hospital. So why send him to a parent-run school? In fact, free schools will be run exactly like any other school, with the headteacher and his or her senior leadership team being responsible for the day-to-day operation and the governing body in charge of setting the strategic goals. While some of the governors of free schools will be parents, that’s true of nearly every school, and, like other schools, they will also recruit experienced educationalists to serve on their governing bodies. The governors of our school, for instance, include John McIntosh, ex-headmaster of the London Oratory School.
Another common misconception about free schools is that the lead proposers – people like me – will become the headteachers. Not so. Like a majority of free schools, we advertised for a headteacher in the Times Educational Supplement. We had over 100 applicants and ended up appointing Thomas Packer, a Fellow of the Institute of Physicists and, at the time, the headmaster of a successful independent school in Stockton-on-Tees.
Free schools will also be bound by the School Admissions Code, which prohibits any form of selection based on academic ability, and inspected by Ofsted.
But if there’s so little difference between free schools and ordinary state schools, why bother setting one up in the first place? In fact, there are some key differences. To begin with, free schools aren’t funded by local authorities, but by the Department for Education. While our school will be accountable to the Secretary of State and his officials, we won’t be answerable to the local authority. In practice, that means we’ll have considerably more freedom than a typical community school. For instance, our standard class size will be 24 rather than 30.
Another advantage free schools have is that, when it comes to hiring staff, they won’t be bound by the terms and conditions that the NUT, ATL and NASUWT have agreed with the state, enabling them to reward good teachers and dismiss bad ones more easily. That’s the real reason the teaching unions are so anti-free schools.
But the most important freedom that our school will enjoy is the ability to set its own curriculum. Instead of teaching ICT and Citizenship, we’ll offer the children Latin and a multi-disciplinary course on the Renaissance. Instead of steering children towards vocational courses in things like “personal effectiveness” – which teaches them how to claim the dole, among other things – we’ll make sure our pupils study subjects like History, English Literature and a foreign language. Instead of “Core Science”, we’ll insist that all the children study the three sciences separately.
At the West London Free School, we want to offer what’s known as a “classical liberal education” – that is, a mandatory core of traditional, academic subjects, complemented by plenty of music, art, drama and competitive sport. No technical subjects, no vocational ones. We believe in education for education’s sake – not as a preparation for future employment, but as an end in itself. We want all the pupils at our school to become acquainted with the best that’s been thought and written – Matthew Arnold’s definition of culture.
We believe that this knowledge, together with the ability to think, is the ideal preparation for a rich and rewarding life.
One of the best definitions of a “liberal education” was provided by Cardinal Newman who defined it as that “illuminative reason and true philosophy” which is “the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence”. This is the educational philosophy that underpins many of Britain’s best Catholic secondary schools, such as the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, as well as some of our best independent schools, such as Eton and Westminster. Unfortunately, it’s not widely available in secular comprehensives.
One of the most oft-repeated criticisms of the West London Free School is that this sort of education will only appeal to educated, middle-class parents – that, in effect, it will exclude the majority of the population, particularly in an area as diverse as Hammersmith. In fact, it’s deeply patronising to assume that working-class parents aren’t interested in an academically rigorous education for their children. We had over 500 applicants for our first 120 places, many of them from the local housing estates. We estimate that about a fifth of our first cohort will be on free school meals (above the national average) and between 30 and 40 per cent will be black, Asian or minority ethnic.
Another characteristic of our first 120 pupils is that they’re a mixed ability group, no different from the children in the surrounding comprehensives. We don’t think that will be a problem. We believe that children of all abilities can access a challenging curriculum provided it’s taught in the right way. To assume otherwise is to be guilty of what the American educationalist E D Hirsch calls “the soft despotism of low expectations”.
When Harold Wilson first sold comprehensives to the British public, he described them as “grammar schools for all”. Some of them have lived up to this ideal, but many of them have fallen short. We hope that our free school – like the other schools set up by groups of parents and teachers opening this year – will become a beacon, showing just what it’s possible for a taxpayer-funded school to achieve if it’s free of state control.
Toby Young is the author of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (2001) and
The Sound of No Hands Clapping (2006). To learn more about the West London Free School, visit Wlfs.org.