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In his talk at the RSA last week, Al Aynsley-Green argued that it was the role of the community, not just parents, to nurture our children. Much will come down to parental care and support, but nurture, Al proposes, extends to providing our children with a community of support and a good education. This requires the nurture of individuals beyond the family and when it comes to education, perhaps the new ‘free schools’ agenda presents us with a timely opportunity.

In his talk at the RSA last week, Al Aynsley-Green argued that it was the role of the community, not just parents, to nurture our children. Much will come down to parental care and support, but nurture, Al proposes, extends to providing our children with a community of support and a good education. This requires the nurture of individuals beyond the family and when it comes to education, perhaps the new ‘free schools’ agenda presents us with a timely opportunity.

Could we take advantage of Gove’s 'free schools’ agenda to engage our communities in the nurture of our children? And, by doing so, might we also eliminate some of the issues that currently call the agenda into question?

The biggest difficulty in creating a genuine ‘community free school’ might prove to be getting the community to act on behalf of all of its children.  That would require them to show the empathy that Al argued for in his talk. Free schools are intended to address the needs of children whose needs are not currently being met. So if, for example, there are a group of Romanian children in a community who are not receiving an education that meets their individual needs, could we really get a whole community to invest in creating a new school for them, particularly if their own children were doing well in the schools already provided?

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Let us suppose that a community does get behind the creation of a new school – perhaps because there is a shortage of schools in the area.  If we truly achieve the buy-in of a community, could we avoid the risk of ‘extremist’ schools? Could we create curricula that are designed with all of our children’s needs at their heart, and not just those of the middle-classes? (Arguably, what happens in many schools now, and what is feared to be perpetuated by free schools). Could we counter that damage that might be done to a child’s education because their school is allowed to fail?

Let us take these three issues in turn.

Extremism. There have been worries that if anyone is permitted to set up a school, then those with extreme views might be allowed to ‘indoctrinate’ a whole school of children to their way of thinking, thereby not only depriving children of a well-rounded and critical education but also possibly proving a threat to future society.

If a whole community were involved in creating a new school, however, with a range of people compiling the content and structure of lessons and extra-curricular activity, it would seem that it would be highly unlikely that the extreme views of a few could become embedded in the school’s ethos. This would, of course, rely on there being a genuinely democratic involvement of the entire community, and not a few individuals or a small silo speaking for everyone.

Domination of a ‘middle-class’ curriculum. There have been concerns that those who are likely to have the inclination and the capacity to set up a new school are the middle-class parents – those whose children have probably already received a fairly good start to life, academically at least. Admittedly, it is not only parents who have shown an interest in setting up schools; charities and former teachers have also expressed an interest. Yet it would seem that, at least in some cases, new schools are likely to be tailored to the children of the educated middle class, perpetuating many of the problems already found in schools and isolating the children from poorer or less well-educated backgrounds.

So, let's say a community set up a school. One would hope – with the involvement of all the various groups of people living or working the area, including the children themselves – that it would be the needs ofall the children in that community that would be placed at the heart of the curriculum and of the structure and ethos of the school.

Allowing schools to fail. Allowing schools to fail because parents have chosen to send their child to another school is arguably an unacceptable outcome of a free market for schools, for it will be the children in those failing schools that suffer. It seems that this would be a harder problem to avoid, given that for the school system to work as a market some schools must be allowed to fail.

Yet if the whole community was behind the school and had invested in its creation,  it would be fair to suppose that they would send their own children to the school and work to ensure that the school was a success.

So would it work? Could we get communities to create schools, and would they be better free schools because they belong to the whole community?

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It would seem that, while perhaps not perfect, the schools would potentially be far better for the involvement and commitment of the people, and indeed organisations, of the local community. And it would seem fair to argue that if a community ensured that the children’s well-being was at the very heart of the project – and all children, not just their own – then a community developed school would work.

Maybe this would require that, as a society, we change the way we value children other than our own (see Becky Francis’ previous blog) and indeed, as I argue above, the biggest challenge might lie in persuading the whole community of the value of a new school when it is only a few children who really need it. But arguably projects such as setting up a school, with the whole community genuinely participating, could present a catalyst for the development of empathy in our communities, which Al Aynsley-Green so passionately advocated.

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