Last night I attended a public meeting to discuss the successful bid by parents in north London to set up a free school in East Finchley. The Archer Academy is to be a non-selective, non-denominational community school. It was an extraordinary occasion, with hundreds of local parents prepared to throw their weight behind the project. Tellingly, a local Labour councillor was on the panel to answer questions about the new school which has cross-party support.
This is due, in no small part, to the desperation of the community in the face of consistent refusal on the part of the local authority (Tory-controlled Barnet) to do the right thing and build a new school. But we are where we are and I have no doubt there is more enthusiasm for the free school than there would have been for a council-driven project.
One of the founders, Toby Blume, wrote about his experience in the Guardian today. As Toby says, he is no evangelist for the “free school” movement:
‘I am not what you would call a typical free-school supporter, having been quite a vocal critic of free schools during my time as chief executive of a national charity. My main criticism was that the policy allowed more affluent communities to benefit from additional resources, but left poorer areas that lacked the resources and ambition at a disadvantage. Whatever the original intention, free schools could too easily contribute to greater inequality as the gap between rich and poor widens and the least well-off fall even further behind.’
I am not a typical supporter of free schools either. The myth of “parental choice” smashed the state education system into fragments and created a pseudo-market of patchy provision, especially in the inner cities. The Archer Academy strikes me as an attempt to use the free school model to mend the broken system in North London and I applaud those involved for holding to their principles (despite what the comments on the Guardian website might say).
Free schools are the nearest the Coalition has to a populist policy on the scale of Margaret Thatcher’s council house sales. Now that engaged north London liberals committed to the state education system have bought into it, you know Michael Gove is onto something.