One of the advantages of allowing free schools is the greater diversity of educational philosophies that can result, provided free schools are not stifled by excessive regulation. This refers not just to teaching methods and curricula, but also to a school’s broader outlook. As far as PISA or TIMMS results are concerned, this aspect may not be hugely important. But surely the desirability of a system in which parents and children can choose a school they feel at ease with, in a broader sense, should require little explanation.
Yet it is also a reason why the whole project continues to face hostility. The British Humanist Society (BHS) and the Guardian have recently revealed a shocking story, or at least, that’s what they seem to believe. Soon, there will be three free schools run by organisations which believe in creationism. Yes, that’s right: not one, not two, but three whole schools. Free schools are barred from teaching creationism, and the organisations have all declared that they are not planning to do so. But you never know, teachers might let it slip in through the backdoor…
The critics’ naïve assumption is that state schools provide value-free education, while the non-state sector is riddled with dodgy ideologies. But while creationism is obviously junk science, so are quite a few of the things that I learned as ‘facts’ at state schools. A selection:
- The forest is on the verge of disappearance. ‘We’, with our cars and our factories, have killed it (late 1980s).
- Poverty in the Third World is caused by us Westerners (early 1990s).
- The early industrialisation period created unprecedented misery (mid 1990s).
- Reich Chancellor Heinrich Brüning’s ‘austerity’ measures were partly to blame for the demise of the Weimar Republic and Hitler’s rise to power (mid 1990s).
- Marxism was noble idea, the dictatorships of the Eastern bloc were merely an abuse thereof (late 1990s).
- America has no welfare state whatsoever (late 1990s).
For the BHS and the Guardian, such examples would not count as ‘indoctrination’, of course, but as ‘raising awareness’ and ‘promoting critical thinking’. And that’s fine. Teachers have their views, and these colour the content of their classes. So what?
The problem is that a system with high levels of centralisation and union dominance enables a degree of conformity which would be impossible in a more polycentric system. For the British case, Katherine Birbalsingh vividly describes an educational establishment with a mindset of low expectations, excuse-making, crude egalitarianism, political correctness and hostility towards competition (e. g. here). I don’t know whether she’s right or not, but if she is, it would go a long way towards explaining why the Guardian seems to be so keen on shielding this establishment from competition.
And here’s where free schools come in. At the moment, those who disagree with current educational practices can criticise them at great length, but they cannot put the alternatives they advocate to the test. They cannot persuade by setting an example, and letting the results speak for themselves. Free schools provide such an avenue, however imperfectly. That is their great potential. If this means putting up with some irritating but harmless quirks like creationism, so be it.