The Tories are winning admirers with plans for new Swedish-style schools, with parents in the driving seat. But will they work here? And is it wise to let parents set up and run Britain's schools?by James Crabtree / April 26, 2009 / Leave a comment
Discuss this article at First Drafts, Prospect ‘s blog
Politicians like talking about parent power. Tony Blair promoted his 2006 Education Act with boasts of a new era of parental choice. Today, David Cameron is in on the act—promising a Tory parental revolution, and a new “great Education Act” in his first 100 days.
For Emma Jones, though, such high rhetoric has a rather empty sound. About five years ago she began to worry about where her son and daughter would go to secondary school. A theatre director by profession, she and her young family lived in a small enclave of London’s borough of Camden, just south of the busy Euston Road. Although both children went to one of the five local primary schools, she knew there was no acceptable local secondary. The nearest were academically weak, to find an alternative would mean travelling many miles across the city.
Jones also knew that parents in her corner of Camden had been campaigning since the 1970s for a decent school for the area. It hadn’t worked: Camden council had decided to build a new academy school four miles away instead. Despite all the rhetoric of parental empowerment, Jones faced familiar choices: choose a bad local school, move house or go private. Unhappy with each option, Jones kicked up a fuss.
She began to gather names for a petition outside primary school gates and launched a fresh campaign—”Where is my school?” She and fellow campaigner Polly Shields became unintended experts on topics such as local demographics. A council working party reviewed the issue. The campaign duly stalled. There was no suitable building, Jones learned. Her children could go to an existing school. There was nothing to be done. So much for parent power.
Opening a new state school is a tricky business. Either you must convince a local authority to do it for you or give up in frustration and start a private one instead. Either option means many years of sweat. Even so, Emma Jones’s campaign is only a small part of a broader, more complicated story about the potential rise of British parent power. Even though Britain’s education system has improved after a decade of new cash, figures published in March still showed that about 100,000 parents had missed out on their first choice of secondary school last year. The problem is felt most in cities, and most acutely…