David Cameron (not Nicky Morgan, the secretary of state) has made an announcement that there will be, should the Conservative Party win the May general election outright (a prospect that worries me, the more so that it becomes more and more likely given the disintegration of parties to the left of it), another 500 free schools. These are not, it ought to be remembered, schools that cost nothing to set up (so not free in that sense), nor are they ones that are free from OFSTED, from the Department for Education or from whatever assessment regime the government sets up when it finally makes its collective mind up. A particularly penetrating analysis of the government’s obsession with “accountability” is in Michael Rosen’s most recent letter to the SoS. All that free schools are free from is the national curriculum (the degree of freedom this offers is not great, since there is relatively low compliance with the new NC anyway) and Local Authorities. Whether this is a real freedom is questionable. Last week in the Times was a letter from a bunch of heads (150 or so, I seem to recall) who wanted to urge the powers that be and any incoming government not to undo the “freedoms” they had acquired. I found the letter profoundly depressing, the collected thoughts of a group of colleagues who had decided that a degree of local collaboration and accountability was best done without the elected officials who people who live close to their schools actually expect to run education.
This is a vital point. We are in a democracy, and to a great extent, education needs to be in the political hands of local people electing local councillors. The Local Schools Network are perhaps the people who make this point the best. Otherwise education is seen more and more as a arm of central government, and that has enough arms already (in every sense of the word). We need, and have to sustain, a model of education where good local education is always available to people locally. It is in the definition of local where the problems begin, and I would like to advance a few criteria. For those who are interested in the broader definition of local content in the curriculum, the best guide is the Cambridge Primary Review (summarised here in this helpful booklet). The broader point is that we are currently locked in a battle in health provision, education, business – where everything is seen as national and little is regarded as locally important. Nobody is asking whether people who live in Milton Keynes should learn different maths or history, or have different provision in cottage hospitals, or have a different relationship between local goverment and business, than they do in Cornwall or Blackburn or Ystradgynlais. Local areas, or the regions into which they are subsumed are now seen only as administrative regions for the implementation of central government policy. So, some criteria I think we ought to be aware of:
- Children educated in Milton Keynes are children who are educated in a city with strong sense of itself but with a weak sense of community. This is not surprising, but for us it means that local necessarily carries with it the need to be communal. The things that are taught need to have a direct pertinence to the community we serve and in which we hope our children are going to live. Thus there is a criterion here to make sure that schools teach communities what it is to be local. Does our definition of local encourage or discourage individualism; and does it strengthen community or detract from it?
- Local approaches must be, first and foremost, all about relationships, working in cooperation and collaboration and not in competition for students. Schools in a local community must regard each other with favour and as allies, working not for their own honour but for the growth and communal success of their city, village or town. Does our definition of local, therefore, allow us to join with others in encouraging the growth of a long term, purposeful community?
- Local approaches necessarily involve (and here I cannot escape Wendell Berry) short supply chains for services and food, a knowledge and appreciation of the farming that produces our food, the purpose and goodness of hard work, and a “historical awareness” of the locally important businesses, farms, industries and manufacturing for which the area is famous. When I taught in South Wales, there was a cross curriculuar stream of Industrial and Economic Development that was part of the KS2 Welsh curriculum, quite rightly. We ended up down mines, in oil refineries, at old copper works and appreciating local artists inspired by industry. We hosted events by energy developers and (uninvited) hosted anti-opencast mining protestors, then debated it. We didn’t study the Tudors or Victorians because they were Tudor or Victorian, but because they impacted the place where the children and their forefathers had lived, worked and (in the case of forefathers) died, and in which they themselves would struggle to make a living. They belonged, and not many people do that any more. A criteria for defining local must therefore be all about belonging. Does our definition of local mean that we belong to each other and to the physical place where we have settled, its values and its dreams?
- We are truly local when we have the competencies and willingness to be hospitable to strangers. Otherwise, the communal enterprise we are building is no use ot man or beast, and will (as it probably deserves to) die. Does our definition of local stretch to include the alien and stranger in an overt act of hospitality? I have written elsewhere about this.
- Do we use our concept of local to place restrictions on what we do or do not do with the technologies available? Do we automatically assume that all technologies are good, providing they give us faster access to goods and services? Albert Borgmann argues strongly against this idea, and the Amish are a classic example of people who have made communal decisions about which technologies will help them, and which ones threaten them. Does our definition of local enable us to think about the impact of our technologies on the way we live as a community or village or town? Does it give us the freedom to choose, or does it make assumptions that all new technologoes are automatically better for all of us?
- Sometimes we need to fight for different ways of doing things, and teach our children that that is OK. The Incredible Edible movement across towns and cities undermines some economic models that are supermarket based, as do the urban garden movements in cities like Detroit, New York and Chicago, which are markers of urban and community renewal. Are we teaching children that we can do this? That we can live communal lives increasingly separate from the multinationals? Have we even thought about the locally determined opportunities to create together – that creating music is more satsifying than listening to it? That decorating a room is more interesting and creative than merely getting somebody in to do it? Does our definition of local free us through hard work? Or keep us enslaved in a global entertainment or dependeny culture?
So you will understand it if I reserve a certain skepticism about the government’s commitment to localism. It simply cannot envisage the level of local control that would enable communities to be diverse, just, but different, with different priorities and different ways of relating to the centre. It is all about central control, and as this election slithers its murky way to a low turnout, we need to remember that we are educators and thus liberators of children, not their enslavers, and local approaches, in this society at this particular time, will go further towards those freedoms, than the ones, including “free schools”, that the government is presently advocating.