Political baggage – Free School with every purchase

Toby Blume, former chief executive of Urban Forum, where I’m a trustee, is setting up a free school – along with some other local parents in East Finchley, north London. The school that Toby’s helping to set up, the Archer Academy, is particularly unusual because unlike many free schools, it’s being set up in responsive to the lack of a secular comprehensive school in the  area.

Toby wrote an article on the experience of setting up the school for The Guardian last week, and was ‘slightly taken aback’ by the online response. He reflects on his blog that: “My personal favourite has to be ‘you are dangerous….dont you have a job to do?’ I had anticipated that there would be some criticism from those who are philosophically opposed to free schools, but I had (perhaps naively) assumed that people would read my piece before passing judgement.”

While I also enjoyed the comment that Toby quotes, from ‘maketorieshistory’, I was interested in the contribution from former Brazilian world cup star, ‘carlosalberto1970’, who exclaimed: “What utter conceit. Maybe you should set up a hospital, at great expense, in an area with numerous perfectly fine hospitals…

So what if tiny tim doesn’t get his transplant, so long as your kid gets his teeth straightened and that dreadful hairy mole excised.

What a sorry sell out.

We can only imagine what Garrincha would have made of the free schools policy but the contribution from ‘Carlos’ is interesting because, aside from the simmering rage, there’s the very clear charge that – when the government pursues a new set of policies around public services – the two choices are either to support them or oppose them.

This point is reinforced in a polite and considered way by, Iain Chambers, commenting on Toby’s blog, who says: “while I agree that much of the negativity was rabid and misdirected, it doesn’t change the fact that by establishing a Free school you are supporting a policy that is aimed at undermining the comprehensive system as a whole.

Before adding: “I really wish you and your Archer group colleagues had put your considerable energies into challenging your borough’s educational provision, and by doing so challenge the Free school fiasco as a whole, through the courts.

Underlying this discussion is one of the big dilemmas faced by social entrepreneurs, particularly those operating in democratic countries where governments are making legitimate political decisions that we don’t necessarily agree with. That dilemma is whether to work within the structures put in place by government to deliver the best social outcomes you can or to fight, either through campaigning, politics or legal action to change those structures.

It’s not necessarily an either/or decision in principle but in terms of a specific situation – such as the one Toby and his fellow East Finchley parents found themselves in – you generally have to prioritise one approach over another.  I’d guess that the difference between most social entrepreneurs and most political activists, is that the political activists are more likely to prioritise opposing the policy (using various means at their disposal) and the social entrepreneurs are more likely prioritise working pragmatically to make the best of things.

Your view on who’s right in the case of the Archer Academy free school will probably depend on your priorities. If you’re a parent in East Finchley hoping to send your child to a secular comprehensive school in the near future, the approach of Toby and his colleagues is probably more use to you than a lengthy, fruitless legal battle. And even a successful legal battle, if it ran for several years, wouldn’t be much to those children who’d have to start school somewhere else in the meantime.

On the other hand, if you’re someone who believes passionately that the government’s free schools policy is going to destroy our education system and deliver a worse deal for the worst off young people up and down the country, it’s not entirely unreasonable to regard people working within that system as endorsing the policy as a whole, and therefore being complicit in the consequences.

As a politically-conscious social entrepreneur, I think engaging in the arguments about the likely impact of policies is very important. But in situations where legitimate decisions have been made and there’s no prospect of changing them in the short term, my instinct is that it’s entirely right – if also, in this case, a lot of hard work – to adopt a positive, pragmatic approach to make the best of the situation.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Political baggage – Free School with every purchase

  1. Hi David, interesting post.
    I think you’re quite right when you say pragmatism and opposition are not mutually exclusive. I see this constantly happening, for example on policies like community rights, where VCS groups and soc ents are keen to take them up whilst also seeking to influence and improve the policy.

    For me, the key issue in relation to free schools is whether there is currently any likelihood of the policy being reversed by Labour. Frankly, sine they started this shift, with their academies programme, I think it highly unlikely. They may refine it or improve it, but I don’t see them fundamentally changing the general approach.

    The situation in east Finchley may be unusual – and perhaps it’s that I ought to have realized in writing the article – but all we want is the normal type of schooling that most parents take for granted, but which we don’t have.
    Although I think your point about politically minded people favoring opposition and entrepreneurs being more pragmatic may be right, it rather overlooks the fact that these are not mutually exclusive characteristics. There are plenty of politically orientated entrepreneurs and the emphasis changes at different times and according to different issues

    Anyway, thanks for raising the issues, it is an ongoing challenge for everyone concerned with positive social change.

    Cheers
    Toby

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  2. Beanbags admin

    Hi Toby,

    I agree that the characteristics of political activists and social entrepreneurs aren’t mutually exclusive – and that lots of people would define themselves as both.

    And there’s obviously plenty of instances where it might be appropriate to choose opposition and pragmatic action at the same time – such as if an organisation decided not to participate in the Work Programme but set up a project to help people get back into work funded through other sources.

    The point, I suppose, is about how people choose between pursuing an ideal that probably won’t happen, and pursuing something that’s as close as possible to the ideal and has a good chance of happening.

    On the specific issue, I agree it’s highly unlikely that Labour will reverse the free schools policy in any meaningful way if/when they return to government.

    I imagine they might ditch the name ‘free schools’ but I’d say the chances that they’ll put genuine power to open new comprehensive schools – based on local demand – in the hands of local authorities are virtually nil.

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