Michael Gove hails them as the way to raise standards. But when Anne Broni and a fellow teacher sought the go-ahead for a ground-breaking project, it seemed their faces didn’t fit. This is an extract from Anne Broni’s story in the Independent…
Last summer my colleague Kay Johnston and I began our engagement with the DfE; our vision of a free school, Diaspora High School, was at odds with theirs. What happened afterwards could be described as the Free School version of Scott’s expedition to the South Pole.
We were planning to set up a school in south London that aimed to persuade local youths to turn their backs on gang culture by providing them with guaranteed work experience once they left school – so they would not go straight out on to the streets. An article about our plight in The Independent came to the attention of The New Schools Network, a charity charged with providing support for free-school groups through the application stage. We were offered free consultancy services including a personal advisor and educational advisors ranging from finance to operations. We were also advised to apply for a place on the “development programme”, which was aimed at maximising the support we would receive. Over the course of the next four months we attended almost weekly meetings and conferences with other free-school proposers and our advisors. Through these networking sessions it was clear that the aims and vision of Diaspora were just as good if not better than our competitors; our focus on numeracy and literacy at the primary level would attempt to mitigate the difficulties pupils had in accessing the secondary curriculum, our academic and vocational education blocks discouraged pupil apathy, and our mentoring and work-experience programme ensured that pupils had a definitive destination at the end of their time at Diaspora. We had a plan for the beginning, middle and end.
Feedback from the New Schools Network stated that our application was getting better and better; that our vision was compelling; our curriculum innovative. That said, we were questioned as to why we felt academic children needed to study vocational subjects. To us and the parents, young men and collaborators who have supported Diaspora, it was obvious. To individuals lacking in class awareness it had to be justified. It is difficult to criticise the structures put in place but I often left these meetings feeling we were there to make up the numbers. This was indeed an augury of things to come. All advisors were well trained, with stock phrases such as the patronising references to our “passion” and “hard work”. Criticisms of parts of the process were met with the defensive “we’re new at this and still learning”….
Here are the concluding comments
In hindsight, the Coalition line that ordinary teachers would be positively encouraged to set up free schools is a fallacy. Teachers and parents can only set up free schools if they employ the services of a management company or have a sponsor. The religious and independent schools also get a good look in. Teachers like myself and Kay, with real experience, understanding of our communities and the commitment to follow through, are the naive players in a game that increasingly is not about the majority, but the minority with connections to our current political leaders. We simply didn’t stand a chance.