Picture a school with no rules, no lesson plans, no uniform, no fees. No admissions process, no hierarchy, no fixed holidays or term times.
I imagine that such a scenario can only be possible as an acceptable state-wide regime in reaction to the institutionalised bleakness depicted in one of Pink Floyd’s most iconic videos, Another Brick in the Wall. Interestingly, the song was reportedly inspired by song writer Roger Waters’ own schooling which he felt restricted children, rather than inspire them.
How would a school operate if crucial elements like the curriculum, discipline, and authority were taken away from it? Would this result then, in a utopian system where children and parents led the course of their education or lead to absolute chaos?
It’s hard to believe that the original wave of ‘free schools’ in the country operated on this principle.
The BBC ‘magazine’ covered this in a detailed feature recently, titled ‘The anarchic experimental schools of the 1970s’. As a content editor on the most innovative and resourceful website for school leaders today, I was immediately fascinated.
John Ord, a local teacher in Liverpool, established the Scotland Road School which had “no headmaster, nor hierarchy, nor recognised any central authority, but was controlled by the parents, children and teachers together”. The article reported that it was registered with the Department for Education and also, subjected to regular inspections.
In his own words in the BBC film, Ord says: “Children have had stolen from them the right to dig, to build, to experience, to see”. The free school will put them back in touch with nature, he adds.
Soon, this model of free schools sprung up around the country – to London, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, and Nottingham, among others.
The article interviewed various ex-pupils from the school, one of whom revealed that learning was done by doing. Some state that they received personal attention, were encouraged to ‘try’ everything and picked up practical skills in music and catering. The lack of exams or qualifications, however, resulted in the realisation that “free school alumni won’t turn up many brain surgeons or barristers”.
Their policy of free admission and no fees, saw more pupils arriving – “most of them serial truants”. Their “ad-hoc, unfunded approach” saw these schools fail financially, and eventually be taken over by local councils.
In spite of failing at his ‘experiment’, Ord maintains that these schools were ahead of their time – “We weren’t trying to overthrow the system. We were challenging it. Now look at school councils, mixed curricula, community schools” – all commonplace today.
One of the original free schools in Birmingham survived until the present day, only by becoming ‘unfree’. Anita Halliday, who took over the school in 1973, says that radical ideas gave way to the enforcement of hierarchy, a timetable and a curriculum.
Toby Lion, a pioneer of modern free schools, who has set up one in west London, said that while the historical concept of free schools with a lack of exams and qualifications were deeply flawed, he argues that “there should be a space within the public education system for a degree of experimentation”.”
The article reports that the only “genuine free school” which still remains is Summerhill boarding school in Suffolk. Zoe Readhead, daughter of founder AS Neill, says that children are allowed to decide their future at the school. The school apparently covers everything from internet pornography to nude swimming!
Today, the term ‘free school’ is associated with the Michael Gove regime, and refers to a different sort of ‘freedom’ from local authority control (and therefore, more autonomy), rather than ‘freedom’ for pupils. In contrast, it allows for schools to be set up by charities, teachers, parents, businesses, religious groups, trusts or universities, and is funded by the Government. It also allows for greater flexibility over term times, teachers’ pay and conditions, and the curriculum.
While there’s no going back, and the modern climate of education makes it virtually impossible to return to the previous system of ‘free schools’, what I take away is that the landscape of education in England has been irreversibly changed by these ‘anarchic experimental schools of the 1970s’.
And that, for me, is its most lasting contribution.
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