Friday, 3 June 2011

Free schools

When in the early nineteen-eighties I started working on Conductive Education, with a view to establishing and developing this system in the United Kingdom, I adopted an implicit model longstanding across the Anglo-Saxon world: I would go independent, into the 'voluntary section'. This was despite my always having been a strong advocate of public education, and having worked all my adult life until then in the public sector (the latter teaching me some bitter lessons!).
I explained my emerging position thus. The public sector for a variety of reasons finds it hard to innovate in education, in theory and in practice. Independent schools, however, had enormous, enviable freedom to do just that. Historically, going back into the nineteenth century. new educational theories, goals, methods, curricula, means of organisation, etc., would find no niche or welcome in the public sector. Indeed, the organs of the state migh actually try to exclude them. So proponents, advocates, pioneers of alternative ways of teaching and educating children, would use the freedon and mechanisms available within the almost-anything-goes 'voluntary sector' (to use an ahistorical contemporary concept) to establish and develop their dreams.
Some independent schools would wither and die. Others flourished and survived. Often the advocates, parents and providers, at these schools were verbal and literate, and where things went well word would get around. Others would want the same kind of education, and the popular and professional consciousness would start cherry-picking ideas. Over a period of time, resistance would ease and the public sector would also begin to incorparate the new educational ways. The independent schools therefore fulfilleded an important social role in a country where the state education system included within itself little structure or mechanism of its own for innovation and development.
This was also of course the case in special education (we still had this vital concept in the United Kingdom nineteen-eighties). Looking back, what special educational organisms had not started life within the public sector? Cyril Burt and the educational psychologists offer a telling exception. Otherwise, had they not begun 'outside' and fought their way in?
That anyway was our romantic dream and our future strategy when we established the Foundation for Conductive Education in 1986, and set about opening the first CE 'school' outside Hungary. We would develop safely outside the exsisting education system, achieve what we wanted to do, then it would be up to political forces (especially from potential users of this approach) to bring the state sector round to conceding the advantges of what we would be doing.
Paradoxically, it may seem, in those early days we had powerful local authority support (City of Birmingham) from councillors and officials who also recognised the the state education system could not accommodate this alien organism. In those far freer and more discretionary days, however, the wider local authority (that is other than its education department) could provide us major help and resources. Ah, happy days, though it did not always seem so at the time! One could dream and one could act. Our actions could be free of central state meddling (though oh dear, the City of Birmingham did like to interfere, at times disasterously, in return for its financial and material support).
When we first started there was when not even a National Currriculum, and no one could have visualised the mare's nest that was soon to unfold. For better or for worse – all too often for worse –schools had been left to get on with their business of educating children utilising whatever educational vision and ideas that they had to hand. We, though, had a vision, and we would be free to exercise it.
But that was in another country...
Since then the things have changed. Successive central governments have assumed a mandate to direct and micromanage the educational process, unjustified by any explicit educational theory, and extraordinarily dirigiste. Sorry, a European word is absolutely essential here, as there is no obvious English equivalent rooted in the culture. And by the way, though my own direct personal experience had been set in particular historical experience of the United Kingdom, specifically in England, over the last twenty to thirty years, I suspect that the general point being made here is to some degree applicable to all the English-speaking lands.
In the distant days of the nineteen-eighies, the terms 'free schools' and 'free schooling' referred to a joyous muddle of educational ideals and establishments, some wondrous, some unbelievably awful, and differing one from another on every conceivable dimension. They had in common simply that they were 'free', free to do what they wished within the bounds of law (even if not always within the bounds of common sense and good taste).
Look in to see what the term 'free schools' means in England now. Readers outside the United Kingdon might be unable to access this page, so I should explain that such a search would be drowned out by the Govenment's appropriation of the term 'free schools' to designate its flagship educational policy to create schools that are free of the local authorities, and free to manage their own affairs – as long as they do so within strict educational guidelines established and policed by central govemenent. But new and different educational theories, goals, methods, curricula, means of organisation, etc...?
I am sure that none of this analysis is original. There is probably already considerable academic and journalistic literature on similar lines, and likely some that takes a contrary position – both better substantiated than what I have written here. My own account simply presents how the world has seemed to one reluctant participant in a process of fairly rapid social change, in which the optimistic campaign to vanguard a nation's crusade to establish Conductive Education evolved into a desperate struggle to keep the light burning. Hardly a neutal viewpoint!
'Free schools'
This is how Wikipedia, a supra-national resource, defines 'free schools'
Free school may refer to:
  • Anarchistic free school, anarchistic 'free skool'
  • Democratic education, schooling run as direct democracies
  • Free education, schools that do not charge for attendance
  • San Francisco free school, a collective of community teachers in SF
  • Free school (England), schools in England based on the 'Swedish model'
  • Free School of Evanston, a school in Evanston, Illinois
  • London Free School, hippie/counterculture community school of UK Underground also involved with the creation of the Notting Hill Carnival
  • Free School, an electronic music duo, based in Birmingham, UK
Beheath this list, Wilipeda provides a disambiguation warning.
At the time that I began working full-time on Conductive Education it was not lost on me that the year was 1984. Like quite a few others at the time, I could comfortably reflect on just how wrong George Orwell had been, and my new position served me as good example of just how free and pluralistic our mature, complex and sophisticated society could be – and on the wonderful opportunities that this offered. How fortnate lucky I was to be trying to establish a CE school in such a free educational context – as I was often told in subsequent years by some of those working in more centralist, European states. By then, however, my world had already begun to change. It is not Orwellian (is it?) but one insight of Gorge Orwell's is well worth considering in this context: 'Newspeak':
Newspeak is a fictional language in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In it, it refers to the deliberately impoverished language promoted by the state.... Newspeak is closely based on English but has a greatly reduced and simplified vocabulary and grammar... The basic idea behind Newspeak is to remove all shades of meaning from language... words with negative meanings were removed as redundant... The Newspeak term for the English language is Oldspeak. Oldspeak is intended to have been completely supplanted by Newspeak before 2050 (with the exception of the Proles, who are not trained in Newspeak...)
The stratum into which Conductive Education is being imported knows Newspeak well: 'needs', 'students', 'gender', 'barriers', 'challenges', 'issues', 'community', 'cope', 'support', 'they' etc. The Proles, in this context the clients, do not speak it.
The official use of the term 'free school' is an prime example of Newspeak, not merely changing meaning into something different, but actually something contradictory to what it used to mean in Oldspeak. As Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee put it:
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master, that’s all.
I do not know about how other countries do things. Here in England, though, and I suspect also to varying extent in other Anglo-Saxon societies, such change in the meaning of words may often represent  euphemisation, perhaps exercised to a political end. The new word is often explicitly adopted as somehow nicer than the unpalatable reality called to mind by the old one. Newspeak is cosier, friendlier, more right-on. So it is, I guess, with the Government's appropriation of the term 'free schools'.
Conductive Education
The early goals of Conductive Education in the United Kingdom were tied to practical possibilities offered by a national tradition of free and independent schooling.. One no longer hears Conductive Education discussed in such Oldspeak terms. But what about the new official Newspeak use of the expression? Special schools were belately included into the Government's free-school plan and I have vaguely heard that some dozen or so scools of various kinds have applied to join. What about CE schools amongst these?
Of course Conductive Education in the United Kingdom is not a single entitity and there is no 'conductive community' as such, so there is no more way of knowing what existing CE institutions are doing about this matter than about any other. Most of CE in this country lies outside the public sector, much of that in charitable organisations, but with one notable exception there has been no public squeak from the world of CE about HMG's invitation to join the ranks of its new free schools.
The exeption is Norman Perrin at Paces who is undertaking the long, arduous free-school application process. What others might be doing, who knows? One would expect Scope, for example, to find a considerable advantange here, as a way of divesting itself of its remaining residential schools. One would equally that it would not be wishing to air such a possibility in public. Maybe smaller charitable fry are following Norman's need, but for whatever reason have not wished to join with him publicly, to discretely share the load.
So can the new meaning of 'free schools' offer what CE's pioneers hoped for, a means to incorporate the system into the nation's state education system. Paces' experience will be very important here for the future of Conductive Education, not just across the United Kingdom but around the world, for advocates seeking precedents for local state CE schools. If Paces' application is unsuccesful, then so be it, perhaps there's another door closed. If, however, Norman manages to lead Paces through into the state education system, then others in similar situations could do it too (and may have to answer to their clients and to their funders if they do not try). But once in, Norman and Paces and any who may follow, will face the sternest test of all. They will have to demonstrate that it is indeed possible to maintain the essence of Conductive Education within a context in which the essence of education may already be decided as something rather contrary.
It is so nice for the Govermnent to want to help but as ever I am reminded of those words of Ronald Reagan's –
The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'
Meanwhile on the front line
I was reminded of all this in a flash this morning, when I read an item by Spencer Pitfield on a Conservative website. Mr Pitfield is a trustee of Paces, and a Conservative Parliamentary candidate (that means a would-be Conservative Member of Parliament):
On the face of what he writes, free schools in the sense that the Government means the term, sound just he ticket for struggling CE. Maybe he is right. We shall see.
Perrin, N. (2011) Policy contradiction at heart of guidelines for Special Free School application? Paces, 12 April
Pitfield, S. (2011) The Free Schools initiative is mercifully challenging the notion that there's a ‘set’ way of educating special needs children, Conservative Home Comment, 3 June
Sutton, A. (2009) Warm fuzzy weasels that I hate: some thoughts about language, Conductive World, 22 September

1 comment:

  1. Andrew,

    It was very interesting reading this account of what it was like in England before I left in 1987. I worked in the private sector until the year before I left to train to be a conductor, when I spent just one year teaching in a public-sector school, in a special school for children with physical disabilities in Basingstoke. It is hard to believe that it was really not that long ago but the world of education in both the private and public sector is unrecognisable to me today.
    During that year in Basingstoke the headteacher used to look in through the window beside my classroom door, just to check before bringing in any visitors, in case we were rolling around the floor painting each other or ourselves, or doing something equally outrageous! The headteacher loved my classroom when he was alone, but he did not always bring his visitors in to meet us when we were covered in paint. Very wise of him I expect. I doubt that even that headteacher would dare to turn a blind eye nowadays.

    Times change, but are they changes for the best? We will see.

    I wish Norman every success in his quest for freedom.