Free schools are an interesting experiment in autonomy, and demonstrate the breadth of factors people think contribute to a good education. Alongside justifiable concerns come innovations and unusual motivations for free schools.
There's been a lot of attention paid to the Phoenix Free School in Oldham, for instance, which will be run by a group of ex-servicemen when it opens in 2013, with a focus on discipline and zero-tolerance for bullies and other malfeasants. If all goes well for the squaddies, over 100 families in Oldham will be able to give their offspring a rigorous schooling which will build their self-esteem, empower them, and give them special attention when their grades are sagging.
Concurrently, a number of other militaristic ideas are being mooted, Combined Cadet Forces (CCF) in state schools and fast-tracking former soldiers into teaching among them. If you've been waiting patiently for your school to be run like Sandhurst, this must feel like a case of the buses.
Proponents of these schemes say they will reverse the steady decline of discipline that has its roots in the classroom revolution of the 1960s, when the teachings of A.S. Neill became gospel, and the role of the teacher slid from "teaching" to "facilitating". According to Neill, "to impose anything by authority is wrong. The child should not do anything until he comes to the opinion--his own opinion--that it should be done." But the utopian dream has been eroded by recent experiences of teachers, who feel like the "abdication of authority" from up top has had "disastrous consequences" for behaviour and attainment, in the words of one teacher-cum-essayist, writing in Standpoint Magazine.
The Education Secretary Michael Gove has said that CCFs are the best way to "instil the spirit of service in the next generation" but, tellingly, that article doesn't elaborate on a causal link between the militarisation of education and improved outcomes. Shaky evidence refers to the deployment of former soldiers at Lordswood Boys School in Birmingham--a school in which, incidentally, the social enterprise Debate Mate runs after-school debating clubs.
Supposedly, thanks to these trooper-teachers, gangs no longer plague pupils, and academic results are on an upward trend. Is it not slightly chilling that, as the article seems to suggest, would-be bullies are being put off only by the prospect of having a run-in with hard-man teachers? Is it not likelier that these improvements are a result of more confident pupils who can speak up for themselves and know that words can speak louder than actions?
Gove was an early fan of the Debate Mate model; in 2009, he said, "Debating has changed the world in the past, and it can do so again. It's already changing the world for all the young people who've been part of Debate Mate." It was a pity he couldn't back up his emollient rhetoric when he got into government; after all, he said at the time, "If, by some chance, I ever get into government, I want to look at [donations to the organisation] and feel ashamed that the government isn't doing just as much to support Debate Mate as you all are."
Now, he's endorsing military schools, perhaps as a sop to those who despaired after the London riots, and there's government money involved. But whereas the benefits of teaching disadvantaged young people how to debate are plain to see, the fitment of the armed forces into education is a more inexact science. In "Military Academies: Tackling disadvantage, improving ethos and changing outcome", Phillip Blond, who heads the ResPublica think-tank, concedes, "The fixation on the disciplinarian measures with 'zero-tolerance', proposed by the Phoenix schools to be introduced in the UK, is perhaps not a sufficient solution either. Enforcement of discipline without an attempt to diagnose and remedy the causes of behavioural misconduct tends not to work".
The context of Blond's paper is the riots, and the extent of social educational failure they demonstrated--so far, so Phoenix Free School--but his recommendations are rather different. He and his co-author, Dr. Patricia Kaszynska, favour a "whole person education" approach, which emphasises "the importance of character formation and high ethical standards and values"; they argue that a chain of academies sponsored by the Armed Forces might contribute to a "completely new moral... institution" which engenders stability and civic solidarity.
The paper is worth reading, if only to remind yourself that most such experimental ideas rarely make it to implementation. But there is an activity which is pursued for the same ends, and has been tried and tested at little expense to the taxpayer. Debating, as Gove points out, is typically the privilege of those favoured by the lottery of birth, but it teaches all participants a thing or two about respect, ethics and citizenship, and certainly raises the aspirations in the case of Debate Mate's pupils. Many of the organisation's mentors have to engage with misbehaving children; many will also have to counter the over-zealous interventions of disciplinarian teachers. The solution comes from within: debating is non-confrontational, and success hinges on listening and responding to others.
Tellingly, it is Gove's Schools Commissioner, Dr. Elizabeth Sidwell, who offers the most mature view on the issue: in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, she said neither CCF nor debating societies should be "the province of the middle classes". Both activities have valuable contributions to make to education, but the exact level of dependence schools should place in them remains inchoate.