Years ago, I saw a grainy VHS video that explored the wide range of primary schools that existed in Rhode Island. What struck me was their diversity and how parents could choose a school to fit with how they thought their children ought to be educated – well up to a point. Elementary education in RI seemed to be in good health. Nothing like that was possible here, and one of the reasons I've been supportive of the government's free (and other new) school approach was just for that reason – diversity and experimentation, both of which seem to me to be desirable in a free society.
It was never clear, of course, just how well this policy would turn out. Would free schools be enclaves for the rich and selfish, or for the whacky and eccentric? Would nutter groups, like creationists and scientologists, worm their way in to state funding and dominate what was on offer? I held my breath.
A report in today's Observer sheds some light on how it's all developing. 93 new free schools open in September, along with university technical colleges (UTCs) and studio schools, which brings the number of free schools to 174. Some new schools will offer "alternative provision" to pupil referral units run by local authorities. There’s a bilingual primary school in London that will teach pupils in both German and English, an academy in Exeter run on Steiner principles, the Hackney Free School with a much longer school day, the Collective Spirit School in Oldham offering non-denominational secondary education in a borough where schools are said to be largely segregated along ethnic / religious lines, and Silverstone UTC, which is run with the support of the motor-racing community. The Observer piece has a few case studies of such schools.
Of course, none of this will reassure or please those ideologically opposed to the idea, and who think that choice is a distraction (if not actually wicked) and local authorities should be calling the collective tune (even if the education that results is dire). Early days, of course, and Ofsted is yet to call in most of them, but I'm cheered by these small beginnings.