Sold out

‘The madness of the education debate has reached a point where NUT members would prefer to see a school building sold to a capitalist developer rather than see a free school succeed’

Katharine Birbalsingh

Who could have known that trying to set up a free school would be so difficult? Twenty-four free schools opened in September. Fifty-five of the 291 applications for a 2012 opening were passed by the Department for Education. Our school, Michaela Community School in south London, was one of them. We should be excited. But we’re in limbo. We don’t have a site. And without a site, we cannot open. 

Last month I said we held out hope that Lambeth council would see past any prejudices they might have and allow us to house our free school in an old empty school we had identified in Kennington. It was perfect. Desks and textbooks were still in the classrooms. For five years the old school has sat there unused. In the local estates and in Brixton market, people told us they were desperate for another school option. 

Then, soon after we approached the council for a building, they set a two-week deadline for developers to make offers. Lambeth assured us that they were keen to talk with us in September/October about the possibility of a free school. We believed them. A week before the free school approvals were sent out, the council exchanged contracts with a developer. Interestingly, I understand that the developer, the son of a Pakistani immigrant teacher who understands the need for school reform, was told by Lambeth that they were helping us find another site. He was concerned about us, and didn’t want to destroy our hopes of setting up a school for the local community. 

Having made a deal that depends on planning permission, the council will now have to wait more than a year for its money.  The duty Lambeth has to the taxpayer to get the best price for the sale of a building appears to have been overlooked. By waiting one week to negotiate with central government they might have achieved a sale that would bring them the money much earlier than in any deal with a developer.

Last year, 433 Year Six students in Lambeth applied for a secondary school place and didn’t get one because of the massive shortage. Even with the 120 places that we would have offered, the shortage would still have been large. Do councils not have an obligation to their electorate to provide school places, even if they are from a free school bent on providing an excellent education for deprived children?

I don’t know how many other free schools are in a similar position. The madness of the fight to improve education for inner-city kids has reached a point where National Union of Teachers and Socialist Workers Party members would prefer to see a school building sold to a capitalist developer, rather than see a free school succeed. They constantly campaign against us, and even now that we are wandering homeless, trying to find a building measuring at least 7,000 square metres in inner London, they continue to hound us in cyberspace. Why on earth they would want to prevent inner-city children from having a choice is beyond my comprehension. The huge shortage of places in this area should be enough of an argument to persuade any sensible person that another school is needed.

With Stephen Twigg as the new Shadow Education Secretary, some are predicting a softening of Labour’s hostility to free schools. But even if he persuades his party, can he influence the councillors and officers in Labour-run authorities? Some of them are convinced that the only school worth having is one that is under local authority control; that parents, whatever their class, race or privilege, should not have choice, and be forced to send their child to the local school. Somehow these people cannot see how such rules only benefit the middle classes, who have the know-how and the means to move house and live next to their school of choice. The family on the local estate has no choice, and in areas like Lambeth where there is a place shortage, they are either forced to home-school or burden their child with an hour or longer journey to school.

People who oppose us believe they are doing what is right for society. They believe they can engineer an equality-for-all utopia. This makes our fight all the more difficult. C.S. Lewis put it well: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

There is no discussion, no hope to persuade them of their folly. They fight on, certain in the belief that preventing the poor from having school choice is right. So our struggle continues. We will not give up. We believe that London’s inner-city children deserve better.

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