March 18, 2011

Free schools causing concern

by Jan Harris

A quiet revolution is underway in the UK’s education system with the country’s first ‘free schools’ due to open in September.

Free schools were introduced by the coalition government to bring more choice to education by allowing parents, teachers, charities and other parties to set up schools in the state system.

The schools are state-funded but they do not have to follow the national curriculum, they can set their own pay and conditions for staff and have control over school holidays and length of the school day.

The Department for Education has received 323 applications to open free schools and 40 are expected to open in September, but many of the proposals are already causing controversy.

The free school concept is popular with faith schools but plans by the Slough Sikh Education Trust to establish a school with a Sikh ethos in the town have been criticised by a Maidenhead Rabbi, Jonathan Romain.

The Rabbi fears that it could lead to Sikh children, who are currently very integrated at school, becoming segregated.

The trust argues that the school will take both Sikh and non-Sikh children from a variety of backgrounds.

However, with the school planning to promote the Sikh faith, with compulsory lessons in Panjabi, Sikh Studies and Gurbani (Sikh Scriptures) planned, many non-Sikh families may shy away from sending their children there.

The West London Free School is also raising a few eyebrows with its plans for a purely academic curriculum with compulsory Latin up to the age of 14.

Tom Packer, the head teacher of the West London Free School, argues that although the curriculum might not suit every child, it will enable children to think for themselves.

There is, however, concern that the school could attract middle-class parents away from the local state schools.

One free school proposal has worried local councils in South Yorkshire so much that they have joined forces to object to the proposal.

Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley councils believe that the Three Valleys Independent Academy, which is due to open next year, could lead to teachers in local state schools losing their jobs.

Many of the local state schools are already under-subscribed and the proposed academy would lead to pupil numbers falling even further.

The academy is expected to open at Manvers in the borough of Rotherham if it receives the final go-ahead.

While many parents are applauding the opportunity for more control over their children’s education, the new system does seem to be bringing a number of new problems with it.

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