LONDON (Reuters) - The beginning of the school year in Britain has seen the controversial introduction of “free schools” set up by parents, volunteers and charities.
Backers hope the new schools -- funded by the taxpayer but free to set their own curriculum and schedules -- will raise the failing standards of Britain’s state education system, seen as one of the key factors behind the riots which rocked London, Manchester and other English cities last month.
Academics and teaching unions say the 24 new schools are an ideological pet project of Prime Minister David Cameron’s centre-right Conservative party, too few in number to have any meaningful effect and the wrong solution to Britain’s educational divide between state and private schools.
Ministers say the mixture of new primary and secondary schools, based on models in Sweden and the United States, will deliver a shot in the arm to complacent state schools nearby, forcing them to raise their game or face losing pupils and even closure.
“Those who support free schools are on the side of parents, charities and committed teachers who are trying to make things better,” Cameron said in a speech at one of the new schools in eastern England on Friday.
“(They are)...On the side of the choice, freedom and competition that will really drive up standards,” he added, calling for a return to old-fashioned discipline in schools.
Britain’s education system is confusing and fragmented.
Elite and expensive private schools, such as Rugby, Harrow and Eton where Cameron was educated, can claim to offer one of the finest educations in the world, but at a cost of up to 30,000 pounds a year.
At the other end of the scale one in five teenagers leave state schools at 16 without a basic grasp of reading or mathematics.
The schools, a key Conservative manifesto pledge in last year’s national election, will be free of control from local education authorities and able to set their own curriculum, length of school day and term dates.
Many have been set up in temporary accommodation or quickly converted buildings to reduce the cost and time of establishing them, but as a result will lack the broader facilities enjoyed by most other state-funded schools.
The two dozen schools were selected by government officials from more than 320 applications, and like the rest of the state system will offer a free education to pupils.
Representing Britain’s multicultural society, they include two Jewish faith schools, a Hindu school and a Sikh school, as well as the most high profile entrant, a school founded on traditional lines in west London where all pupils will learn Latin.
Rising levels of youth unemployment and poor levels of educational achievement have been cited as a contributing cause to a wave of riots and looting blamed on a “feral underclass” that raged through London and other cities in England.
By allowing parents or charities to open schools in deprived areas poorly served by local schools Cameron hopes to curtail a cycle of low ambition and achievement.
However, critics argue that many of the first wave of free schools are actually in more prosperous areas and that these schools will do little to help the most deprived.
Bearing the brunt of that criticism has been the West London Free School in London’s leafy Hammersmith district, where there were 500 applications for the 120 student places available at the secondary school in its first year.
The pupils were taken from a narrow catchment area around the school and then by lottery for those living up to five miles away. They will receive compulsory lessons in Latin as part of a narrowly academic curriculum.
Journalist Toby Young, a father of four children who is the driving force behind the school and is chair of its governors, denies accusations it will be elitist as a result.
“It’s only by making that kind of education much more widely available in the state sector that we are going to break down the apartheid that exists between state and private schools,” he said.
“People say it looks like a private school, (and that) you are just trying to give your children a private education at the taxpayers’ expense,” said Young, author of the wry memoir “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People”, made into a film in 2008.
“Well, if we can create a school which is as good as one of the country’s best independent schools for no more than it costs the taxpayer to educate children at a bog-standard comprehensive school, then I should be made the secretary of state for education tomorrow.”
Reporting by Tim Castle, editing by Paul Casciato