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.