Good week for education but what will long-term effects be?

By Martin Bright, July 19, 2012

This has been a good week for Jewish education.

The approval of three new Jewish free schools shows the government is prepared to back the establishment of new institutions with an ethos based on Jewish faith and culture. It also demonstrates a real appetite in the community to set up new schools and the tenacity to follow through.

If they follow the exemplary model of Jewish schools up and down the country, then I have no doubt the two primaries in London and the high school in Leeds will provide an outstanding education for their pupils.

But what will this mean for the wider family of schools and the wider community? We simply don’t know.

The free school movement has captured the imagination of a significant section of the public. Michael Gove has reason to feel pretty smug that his big idea has caught on.

With more than 100 free schools winning approval this time around, we can be sure that hundreds more will be bidding in the next round.

The establishment of such large numbers of free schools will change the culture of education every bit as radically as the introduction of comprehensives in the 1960s or “parental choice” in the 1980s.

Free schools are not going away. They are, in essence, an extension of Labour’s academies and any incoming Labour government would be crazy to consider dismantling a system which is driven by parents’ desire for the education they wish for their children.

But it is time to step back and consider the possible wider consequences.

A third of the free schools approved this month were faith schools. This is a disproportionate number by anyone’s estimation. There is no reason, in theory, that parents could not join together to set up a humanist school, or indeed, a school based on the principles of Fabian socialism.

Indeed, the Archer Academy, a new secondary school for Barnet in north London, approved in the same round as the Jewish schools, is committed to providing a non-denominational education.

But the reality is that churches, mosques and synagogues form a ready-made frame around which to build a campaign for a new school.

Supporters of a market in state education argue that a diversity of provision gives parents a range of choices. But parental choice often had the perverse effect of giving parents in inner city areas little choice at all.

As middle-class parents flocked to popular schools, others were left as hopeless educational ghettos.

Ironically, this is one of the issues the free school movement is intended to fix. But it is untested. We simply don’t know if it will work.

More seriously, in parts of the north of England, parental choice led to strict segregation, with white families sending their children to one school and Muslim families to another. The riots in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley in 2001 were in part attributed to this phenomenon.

It would be overdramatic to suggest that an increase in the number of faith schools will lead to an increase in communal tension. But it will certainly change the culture of education at local level.

One family’s wish to have their children educated with those from all ethnic and religious backgrounds may be compromised by another parent’s choice to educate their child in a new faith-based free school.

Last updated: 11:24am, July 19 2012