Friday, 18 June 2010

Free schools

There has been excitement among some home educating parents at the news that the government will allow charities, churches and even groups of parents to set up their own schools; these will be funded by central government but free from any local authority control. Considering the enormous antipathy felt towards their local authority by many parents of home educated children, it is not to be wondered at that this idea should sound attractive. In reality, it is of course likely to prove a complete non-starter. Any such school will have to have a very detailed educational plan and also some account of the expertise of those involved in the enterprise. You don't get hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers money that easily!

It is a great pity that things are not as easy as they used to be forty years ago. During Edward Heath's administration in the early nineteen seventies, anybody at all could set up a school with hardly any paperwork. Quite a few parents banded together to start these so-called 'Free schools' and they were nearly all home educators.

There is a bit of a myth that home education was almost unknown before 1976 when education otherwise was founded. This isn't really true. Quite a few parents in the late sixties and early seventies didn't send their children to school and nothing much seemed to happen to most of them. Often, these children were part of hippy communes or associated generally with the Alternative Society. Others were disaffected fourteen and fifteen year olds whom some schools were content to deregister and simply forget about. Often this group became mixed up too with the free schools, with sometimes unfortunate consequences.

In 1970, the year that Heath became Prime Minister, the requirements for registering as a school were very simple. You needed to have at least five children and at least one of those involved in the scheme needed to be a qualified teacher. That was pretty much it. You filled out some forms from the Department of Education and Science, they came and had a look round your house, old shop, corner of a warehouse or whatever and that was it. Local authorities were often quite pleased about such 'schools' as it enabled them to lose a few troublesome pupils, many of who were officially truants anyway.

A few examples of these places might prove interesting to modern day home educators. In January 1972, two sets of parents, the Greens and Johns, set up a school in one room at 32, Parkfield Street in Manchester's Moss Side district. A few other local parents approached them and asked if their own children could attend. These children were unhappy at school because of things like corporal punishment. And so what had begun as a family school for a few home educated children turned into a community resource. It took until September for Parkfield Street to be officially registered as a school. this was because the whole place was run in a very chaotic fashion. Although they didn't call themselves so, the parents who set the thing up were what we would describe today as autonomous educators. They didn't want to tell children what to learn and were happy for them to decide for themselves what to do each day. Both they and most of the other parents who started schools like this were 'deschoolers' who followed Ivan Illich's ideas. Unfortunately, some of the children from the district who were more or less truanting began to hang out there and the premises became a byword in the neighbourhood as a place where kids could spend the day if the didn't want to attend school. There were rumours of drugs and other even more unsavory things. It folded up in early 1973.

Other free schools lasted longer. White Lion Free School in Islington for instance was still going strong after a decade. It started in September 1972 at a building provided by the council at 57, White Lion Street. Initially there were twenty seven pupils at the school and some of those who set it up and ran it were qualified teachers. It was all very laid back though, with few formal lessons and more the air of a commune than a school. ILEA eventually took it over in the early nineteen eighties.

I think that thee are the sort of schemes which some of the home educators who have expressed interest in the new schools initiative have in mind. they think that they might be able to set up small schools of this sort and then be paid by the government to teach their own children. It's not going to happen, of course. Times are very different now to what they were forty years ago. I notice that the second stage of the four stage process in setting up one of the new Free Schools, entails sending in a rough plan of the thing. The DfE will then decide whether to invite you to submit more detailed plans. I rather suspect that some groups of home educators might get as far as sending in this first plan; I would be remarkably surprised if any are invited to take the matter further. The idea here is for proper new schools in proper premises, run by proper teachers using a proper curriculum so that the pupils will end up taking proper examinations. Call me Mr Negative, but I just can't see any home educators being either willing or able to set up anything of that sort. I think that the Department for education might be expecting something a good deal more detailed than an Ed Phil and a few vague hopes for the future.


  1. I too don't expect that free schools will actually have much involvment with HE, but I do have a few doubts about the effect of the whole concept.

    I am all in favour of more freedom, especially for parents, and smaller schools must be a good thing. I do wonder though if this scheme is successful, as well as the whole new academy thing, what will hapen to the sort of support systems funded now by the LA. For example, I have a deaf son, who when he was in primary school (a good few years ago) had specialist teacher of the deaf input. He went to a secondary school with a unit for deaf pupils. The LA have the PRU ( the one we use for science) full of some pretty difficult cases; who is going to pay for all that if money is no longer centralised?

  2. julie says-what will hapen to the sort of support systems funded now by the LA. For example,

    what support you get nothing here in Hampshire!

  3. We still here Julie we still sending in letters of complaint to HCC! Peter just wrote a new letter of complaint to HCC its a really long letter with lots of bullet points.I think he can use the letter as course work for GCSE!

  4. I think there are some home educators will jump at this, though maybe not philosophical home educators. The group of parents that received funding from their LA last year because their local school was so poor springs to mind as an example of they type of HE group that may be interested.