Wednesday, 6 May 2015

More Thoughts on 'Free' schools

Guidelines and regulations are all rather new at the moment, so I don't yet have a definite answer to one question in particular that bothers me, and that's pupil inclusiveness versus selection*. Government rules and guidelines for free schools explicitly forbid them to exclude applicant pupils on certain grounds, physical disability, for example. A Local Authority school will be obliged to accept a wheelchair-using pupil, and in doing so, accept having to pay the cost of any adjustments to the buildings, which may be a relatively large hit to their budget, especially for a small school with old buildings. And of course they do it: not because it's trendy to be politically correct; but because it's the right thing to do: it benefits the wheelchair-using pupil to be in a mainstream school and it benefits the other pupils to live everyday life with less able friends. My question is this: Will a free school have the same obligation, or will it be able to passive-deselect? (“Yes you're welcome to come here, but good luck trying to fit your wheelchair in.”) I find it hard to imagine anyone who would actually answer “no” to this, but I can imagine the situation emerging by default, where a free school doesn't get applications from non-mainstream pupils, simply because everyone knows that they haven't got the facility for….
Who knows what the ultimate goal is? (Conservative Central Office does, obviously, but I mean apart from that.) It starts off looking so innocent as the much vaunted increased customer choice. Then it moves on. Now we have the promise/threat of free schools all over the place. They won't pull Local Authorities out suddenly, like whipping a tablecloth away so fast it leaves all the crockery on the table. It's all being done one tiny step at a time. So far, we've had free schools introduced. Like any new special introductory offer, by and large they are good. Next we had an ever increasing workload put on School Governors and Friends of the School. (Funny, isn't it: how many Tory policy-makers does it take to go from “There is no such thing as Society” to “What we need is The Big Society”?) All the while the budget is whittled away, both by inflation and well-paid accountancy graduates at their desks.
We don't (yet, anyway) have commercially sponsored schooling, but please try to imagine it for a moment. I'm not sure which format I prefer, “Welcome to the Nestlé-McDonald's Wymondham Academy” or “Hi from Happyskool Wymondham, proudly sponsored by…!”. OK, you can scoff now, but when the er– customer choice – available is one or more faith-based schools, a free commercially sponsored school or an expensive fee-based school, don't say you were never warned!

* Local Lib-Dems have tried asking the County Council, at time of writing they are going to get back to us. Helpful research welcome.


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