Rocco: Lessons in Freedom?

Nick Clegg is back in the news you might have noticed. Talking about free schools, and how they’re far too free. Yeah, it’s pretty liberal stuff. I think we can all agree that if anything sums up what it means to be liberal, it’s arguing for increased State influence over children’s minds. It really is the sine qua non of the liberal political vision.

(That is irony, by the way. In contrast to most people nowadays, I refuse to employ “liberal” as a synonym for “soft-socialist”.)

Concerns about schools aren’t confined to Mr Clegg, obviously. Because education is important, education is a serious subject. You can tell it is by how much newsprint is expended on it. You can tell by the tone newsreaders adopt when they interview some headmaster or other. You can tell by how excited everyone gets when exam results are announced. Most of all though, you can tell that education is a serious subject by how much time and effort the State puts into it: full time education is compulsory between the ages of 5 and 17 (soon to go up to 18) in England; education spending is over £62 billion annually, and will only increase; Ofsted’s budget is about £180 million a year; around 93% of children in England are educated in State-schools, etc.

Free schools are very popular among Right-wingers. They’re all about breaking away from government, apparently. But how free are “free” schools, really? Well, like Nick (Clegg, in case you’ve forgotten) says, they don’t have to teach the national curriculum, employ ‘Qualified’ teachers, serve State approved dinners,  and they can set their own term times. This is all very good, of course. On the other hand… they are the brainchild of the State; they are funded by the State; they’re inspected by  Ofsted like State schools; they must operate a “fair” and “inclusive” admissions policy like State schools; they must publish exam results in league tables like State schools; they must be seen to be trying to meet any special needs of individual students like State schools. Further, faith-based “free” schools are forced to take in non-believers and teach evolution as fact, and schools that specialise in certain things, such as engineering for example, will have their funding withdrawn if they don’t attract the amount of pupils the State thinks they should. And though they don’t take orders from local government, they do take orders from central government. So, in reality this particular “freedom” is nothing but the centralisation of power.

What is usually taken as being the big difference between the two – the lack of the requirement to teach the national curriculum – is largely illusory. Firstly, for non-State-funded schools (including homeschools) the national curriculum isn’t compulsory anyway. Secondly, “free” schools must teach English, Maths, Science, and some form of religious studies. And keep in mind any exams in these and other subjects are under the watchful eye of Ofqual – a State created, State funded body that answers to the State, but  which, after the modern style, is called “independent”. Thirdly, the real mark of State control is the inspections. If the inspectors decide a school isn’t up to scratch, for whatever reason they can think of, the State will step in to help rectify the situation.  It does this by putting the school in “Special Measures”, wherein inspections are more frequent and unannounced,  and if no “improvement” is made within a certain period bad things happen. The State has given itself the competence to change the board of governors; get rid of the managers; sack teachers; withdraw funding; and even close the school down. Just like it can do with State schools.

One of the big pluses for “free” schools is that children won’t be taught by as many rabid leftists from the teaching unions. Now, this is wonderful, obviously. But this will only be true, if at all, short term – and even then it’s overhyped. It’s illegal to refuse to hire someone on the grounds that they’re a union member, and it’s illegal to sack someone for being a union member. If a “free” school does well, it’ll  hire more staff and chances are it’ll end up hiring members of teachers unions. The better a school performs, the more students it attracts, the more staff it must hire, the more leftist influence on children. This will occur naturally  in any case, as the overwhelming majority of people nowadays are hostile to liberty, whether they belong to a union or not.

Won’t having their own curriculum (to  an extent) ensure an improvement in educational standards? If parents are more interested in real learning, as opposed to just the passing of exams, then yes, for a while at least. But there are forces that will work against this long term. How long will a “free” school with poor exam results be allowed to remain open under a Labour government or a LibLab coalition? And insofar as “free” schools have to appear in exam league tables, and the exams are intimately connected with the national curriculum, it seems entirely reasonable to assume the majority of them will stick closely to the national curriculum, with slight variations here and there.

But the really incredible thing (from a liberal perspective) about “free” schools, is that they are not allowed to make a profit.  Just like State schools they can’t charge fees for attendance.  Yes, the managers of  “free” schools can pay their teachers what they like, but wages are paid out of State funds. And these limited funds are the same for “free” schools as for State schools of similar size in any given area. So, paying super teachers loads more than average teachers means that that much less can be spent on anything else. Very few people would prefer to work in a chaotic  over a well run environment, and few parents would want to send their kids to a rundown school where they never put the heating on, for example. Therefore, it’s likely that all but the smallest “free” schools will tend to pay teachers very similar wages, no matter how good or bad they are. This means that, long term, the incentive structure of  teachers in the average “free” school will be nearly identical to that of teachers in State schools.

In terms of exam results – which are, after all, the thing that most parents care most about – the effects of the near identical incentive structures will be hidden in the short term  by several factors.  Given the tremendous amount of media interest currently, heads will naturally exert pressure on staff to perform well, and it’s reasonable to assume that parents interested enough in their offspring’s education to change schools will exert pressure on them to do well.  Why only short term? At first mostly higher achievers with proactive parents will predominate. As signs of educational success become visible this will act as an incentive for less capable students with less enthusiastic parents to  want to attend. There aren’t any disincentives for this – “free” schools  can’t charge admission fees, and they can’t have selective admission policies, remember.

But, more importantly, it will take a while until teachers learn that they will not be rewarded much more highly here than in State schools. (Especially so for those working in newish buildings requiring only a small amount of upkeep.) It might be argued that this wouldn’t hold as teachers in these schools will be  doing it for the love of teaching. I’m sure plenty will be, but plenty of teachers in the official State schools start out with this motivation, too.  Unless these “free” schools are staffed entirely by rich philanthropists with alot of time on their hands, it’s unlikely to be a factor in the long run.

Now, I admit, this criticism is very harsh. And, yes, none of this is the fault of the people who open “free” schools. But words matter. If I opened a bakery that was entirely funded by the State; where I was forbidden to charge customers for my products; where I couldn’t choose who to sell to, and who not to sell to; which I had to run according to standards set by the State; where the State forced me to produce certain goods regardless of whether any customers wanted them; where I must cater for any customer who has allergies, or simply unusual tastes on pain of reprimand from the State; where the State has the final say on who I employ; where whether or not I remain the owner is decided by the State; where the decision as to whether I remain open or not is taken by the State – well, the last thing that this bakery could be called is free. Frankly, it would be ludicrous for liberals to enthuse about such a bakery. Why should it be different for schools?

8 comments on “Rocco: Lessons in Freedom?

  1. Anthem
    October 28, 2013 at 11:27 am #

    Good stuff again Rocco. Agree that the amount of state interference with these so-called “free” schools is a major problem but as the state is paying for it (yes, I know, I know) then they get to call the shots.

    On a personal note, it rankles me considerably that religious studies are still given equal billing as Maths, English and Science (compulsory religion and science – no wonder people are confused).

    However, I have to take the positives from these things and I do believe that despite all the things you quite rightly condemn in your article, they DO represent a step in the right direction.

  2. Rocco
    October 28, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    Thanks, Anthem.

    The main point is that people are so uncritical of these schools just because they’re called “free”. Not so long ago, the mere fact that something was funded by the State would make liberals suspicious. When you add in all the other stuff with these schools, it’s amazing – to me, at least – that limited government types lose their heads over them.

  3. Roderick
    October 28, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

    Any school that manages to prise the cold clammy hands of the state from around its throat is a winner. And the freedom not to have to employ unionised curriculum delivery operatives (formerly known as the teaching profession) is an added bonus.

    • Rocco
      October 28, 2013 at 1:07 pm #

      But that’s the thing though, Roderick. They haven’t managed to prise the hands of the State from anything.

      They exist because the State wants them to. They exist in the manner that the State wants them to. They exist only so long as the State keeps paying for their existence, and that’s only so long as their existence pleases the State.

      And as I said, it’s illegal refuse to hire, or to sack people based on their membership of a trades union. No one in this country is free to not employ union members.

      • David
        October 28, 2013 at 6:20 pm #

        I’m sorry, I must be getting up your nose.

        This bit….

        “No one in this country is free to not employ union members.”

        Surely you mean this in the sense that no one is free to not employ Jews, Christians, Blacks, Atheists, Pagans, i.e not employ on the basis of this alone, rather than being unsuitable for the job.

        You make it sound like you have to employ union members when you really mean you would like to be able to refuse employment on the basis of union membership alone.

        Have I misunderstood?

      • Rocco
        October 28, 2013 at 6:55 pm #

        You’re not getting up my nose at all, David.

        Good spot, dude. You’ve not misunderstood -that’s exactly what I meant. I expressed it far better in the post.

  4. The Austrian Way
    October 28, 2013 at 11:25 pm #

    Rocco – you’re the intellectual equivalent of Ragnar Danneskjöld!

    • Rocco
      October 28, 2013 at 11:41 pm #

      Oh, I don’t know about that, man…

      I was going for Francisco d’Anconia!


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