Before the riots and civil unrest came to dominate the news, the Independent carried a story about the Diaspora Free School whose application had been rejected http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/free-school-to-combat-gang-culture-turned-down-by-gove-2331385.html. The school planned to open in Lewisham with a specific focus on helping young people address the issue of gang culture. The school’s application was turned down despite being led by two experienced teachers and despite having 110 expressions of interest in parents for 120 places. Everything about this proposal seems to be right in terms of my understanding of what Gove wants from his free school project. Firstly it is being set up as a result of local need, secondly it has plans to do something meaningful with the curricula freedom which being a free school confers and thirdly it is looking to do something different and innovative, perhaps pushing others schools in the area to try harder faced with this new competition. The teachers behind the project described the rejection of their proposal as ‘patronising flippancy’. There are now serious concerns that the approval process for Free Schools is complex and opaque; the very opposite of the ideology of supply side reforms which attracted Michael Gove to this neo-liberal policy innovation.
The rejection of the Lewisham school does not look good for Michael Gove. He has turned down a proposal for a school with a concrete plan to address gang culture amongst young people just days before the capital erupted into the worst riots in memory. Gove can deny a link between the rioting and government cuts as he did in a recent Newsnight debate with Harriet Harman, but I doubt he could argue convincingly that there is no link between gang membership and the breeding of an amoral lack of respect for authority, property and other people which unleashed itself so graphically on London streets recently.
Meanwhile, Toby Young, his proposal for the West London Free School safely in the bag, turns his attention to the riots in his Telegraph blog and sees no link between the violence and gang culture. He is horrified to hear that a 31 year old primary teacher has been convicted of looting and uses this as an argument that our entire society is sick and multiculturalism is to blame. The only snag in this piece of moral outrage is the person in question was a teaching assistant rather than a teacher, which is a big difference. Young appears not to have checked his facts before writing, initial reports did have the looter down as a teacher, but this report in the Guardian published a day before Young’s blog carries the necessary correction. Let’s hope Young has a better of understanding of the status of Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) when hiring his teachers than he does when writing his blog.
Back in Westminster, Gove has some serious work to do to avoid creating a lasting impression that his Free Schools agenda is a thinly veiled ploy to gift state funding to schools set up by the middle classes for the middle classes. Just a cunning ploy to get the state to pay for schools which could only exist otherwise as fee-paying schools. When entrants to the market who do not fit this bill come along as was the case with the Diaspora application, it appears their proposals are not welcome. This is something which Gove may live to regret especially as the debate about social inequality continues to dominate.