That’s what Toby Young – founder (among many other things) of the West London Free School – has called for. So said Claire Fox, director of Institute of Ideas, and chair of last night’s Voices of Freedom debate on ‘Freedom, Education and the State’. All the panelists – including Young, Tom Clougherty (Adam Smith Institute), David Davis MP, Matt Grist (Demos) and Professor Terence Kealey (vice-chancellor, University of Buckingham) – agreed that ‘excellence for some’ was preferable to ‘mediocrity for all’. This, the strapline for the debate, was more than a little leading but it did bring us quickly to the degradation not only of education today, but of the debate about education too.
Young was scathing on the previous government’s defence of ‘parity of attainment’ above all else. Defenders of the status quo, he said, complain not that free schools will fail but rather the opposite. They might succeed and prove to be good schools, and consequently show up the failings of their neighbouring state schools. Grist was also critical of the ‘misplaced egalitarianism’ that has passed for education policy for so long. Arguably, for all the ‘free, open, diverse’ schools that Clougherty and the government champion, the coalition’s social mobility strategy (as I explain here) is similarly misplaced. Still, the man from Demos, argued for a more ‘expansive’ notion of education, one that encourages something that appeals to all that is ‘aspiring, flourishing’ in our young people. Kealey rather split the panel with his defence of the Ivy League, but his grounds for doing so – the pursuit of excellence and their removal from the patronage of both state and ‘industry’ – were, again, sound.
Indeed, I found little to object to from any of the panelists. Except. I suppose it was Davis’s argument, on the one hand, that social mobility came to an end with the demise of the grammar school. And on the other, that Young’s free school experiment is the way to go. His co-panelists had all argued in their varying ways that its the ‘model’ or the ‘system’ that counts. Its who owns the school or university, how much independence it has, that determines what happens within. But this is a distraction. I suggested it might be better to focus on the ethos of our schools and what a ‘good education’ might look like. While a good case can be made for freeing up the school system – and the more free schools there are the better as far as I am concerned – this doesn’t get us any closer to understanding what’s gone wrong with education. Less still how we are going to address it.