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Melissa Benn’s new book, School Wars (Verso, 2011) is an impassioned response to the present Coalition plan to allow control over English primary and secondary education to pass into the hands of interested private bodies, from groups of parents and teachers to faith communities and what Benn calls ‘edu-entrepreneurs’ (School Wars, 190). The present Scottish government seems still to be committed to the existing comprehensive system. But things can change and it is instructive for us in Scotland to reflect on what is happening across the border.

Those who support the new schools say that free schools provide opportunities for children who are failing or falling behind in the existing comprehensive system. Free schools are free – they don’t charge fees – and they are being set up deliberately in areas where there are higher proportions of poorer families. It sounds good and the results, in some cases, are certainly impressive. They are also ‘free’ however, because they are able to determine pretty much as they wish, the criteria for admission, the disciplinary ethos, the nature of the school day and the terms and conditions of those they employ as teachers. They continue to submit students to a regime of independently accredited examinations and there is a tacit agreement that they will respect the breadth and balance of the English national curriculum as it presently exists, but there is no absolute requirement to follow it as is the case in all state schools.

Those, like Benn, who are alarmed by the new schools put their disquiet down to a number of factors; in the first place, to a distrust of the idea that comprehensive education is really failing – or failing as catastrophically as some people like to claim; to a tendency to ignore – beyond accepting its poorer children into free school premises – forms of real, local democratic accountability; to concerns about the lack of investment in planning for school provision where free schools fail or fail to accommodate all children; to worries about a certain narrowness in some free school curricula focussed on basic skills and employability.

In some important ways, however, free schools remain far from free and are subject to rigorous forms of centralised government control. Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education in England, for example, recently told BBC presenter Andrew Marr that the Department for Education had set up a dedicated unit – with links to MI5, no less – to monitor applications for free school status in order to screen out ‘outrageous’ or ideologically unsuitable applicants. In the context of this discussion, rather predictably, such unsuitable ideologies were typified in relation to creationists and radical Islamists.

In this context, the issue of ‘R.E’ in the school curriculum – under some threat from the increasingly popular English Baccalaureate which has so far failed to recognise it as a core humanities subject – is interesting. The term, ‘religion’ has a particular resonance in the context of the school system that admittedly makes it awkward for politicians and policy makers. It continues to carry, for detractors for example, the association of confessional – and compulsory – Christianity, whilst for some of its supporters, it still seems to function as a kind of last ditch defence against moral collapse. Neither of these pictures would accord very closely with the views of most non-denominational English state school teachers of ‘Religion’ or ‘Religious Education’; a subject that has grown in popularity with students at higher levels over the last ten year. This is perhaps because of its relevance at one and the same time to the world of global events encountered via the media, and to the most familiar and intimate of human relationships. Or it may be because of the scope it provides for intellectual challenge and enjoyment or for imaginative engagement across cultural boundaries. Whatever the reasons for this growth in popularity with young people themselves, surprisingly few involved in the public debates about education, seem able – or perhaps, willing – to recognise its real value as an area of the curriculum in which we might give our future adult citizens the tools and experience, genuinely to address the kinds of concerns that Michael Gove seems to feel warrant the deployment, in relation to free schools, of the full force of our intelligence services.

Arguably a better way to defend our children’s class rooms from the kind of extremism that Michael Gove and his colleagues see as so dangerous, would be genuinely to encourage the kind of exchange of ideas and knowledge – characteristic of R.E. syllabi – that will allow young people to explore, without either naivety or unwarranted suspicion, how the world might look from different perspectives and to learn to think critically and with minds open to the possibilities as well as to the limitations and dangers of different political and cultural norms.

But how far – if at all – these kinds of skill-sets or objectives will be championed within the curricula of free schools run by organisations such as the Emmanuel Christian Centre, the Noor Ul Islam Trust, Forest Light Education Plus, E-ACT, the Cooperative Trust, Edison Learning, or Cognita, is, frankly, anybody’s guess.