Free schools represent an incredible opportunity for public services and for Innovation Unit. We are now talking to a range of inspiring free school projects about developing schools that place the work of Learning Futures at their heart.
However, for all our professional excitement about free schools, it’s easy to have political misgivings. For many progressives, free schools are about weakening the state and strengthening the market. However, in a world of bailouts for millionaires and corporations that are ‘too big to fail’, the lens of state vs market increasingly hides more than it reveals. As Colin Crouch argues, it is more helpful to think about corporate power vs democratic power.
At their best, free schools will enhance the ability of pupils and parents to exert democratic influence over schooling. Against that, some argue that at their worst, free schools will enable corporations to shape schools for their own ends.
I don’t think it’s that simple. Here, recent developments are interesting. Buoyed by its sponsorship of Boris Bikes, Barclays is now offering £1.25m to help parents create free schools. As part of their plans for a new stadium, Tottenham Hotspur are talking up plans for a free school of their own. In these cases, corporates are talking up their social role – presenting themselves as a force for public good. As I have said before, when the US described itself as the free world, the civil rights movement took them at their word. In this same way, this is an exciting opportunity draw corporate behaviour into democratic politics and subject them to the kind of scrutiny in the past reserved for the state. If corporate social responsibility is about to take centre stage in our communities, it will have to get a lot more social and a lot more responsible.
So, I am not just professionally excited about free schools, but increasingly politically excited. They help me to believe that the growing debate about responsible capitalism is not a distraction, but a potentially progressive shift in the terms of the political debate.