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Education writer Fiona Millar slams free schools as ‘Trojan horse’ for privatisation

Fiona Millar believes the free schools model is part of privatisation efforts from the Conservative Party. Fiona Millar believes the free schools model is part of privatisation efforts from the Conservative Party.

Thursday, November 15, 2012
10:00 AM

Prominent education writer and Camden resident Fiona Millar has blasted the government’s free school policy as a “Trojan horse” for privatisation.

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Since coming to power in 2010, the coalition government has overseen the opening of 79 free schools nationwide.

The Department for Education’s website has a map scattered with dots, denoting free schools due to open next September.

There are 102, almost double the 55 which opened this September. The inaugural crop was 24 in 2011.

It concerns Fiona Millar, co-founder of education website Local Schools Network, whose children were all educated at Camden state schools.

She believes all schools should be “accountable” to local authorities rather than education secretary Michael Gove, as they are under the free schools model.

“I think it is quite likely that the whole independent state school movement is really a Trojan horse for the introduction of profit-making schools,” said Ms Millar, partner of former Labour press chief Alastair Campbell.

“We know that is what the Conservative Party really wants and full scale privatisation will be much easier to introduce under this model.”

Under the model pioneered by Michael Gove, parents and community members can apply to set up a new school, which can then be run by an independent education provider.

In September 2011, St Luke’s Church of England School opened in the undercroft of St Luke’s Church in Kidderpore Avenue, Hampstead. Next September, Abacus Belsize Primary School is due to open on a site, yet to be decided, in Belsize Park.

The groups behind both schools insist their creations stem from a need for school places, which are drastically over-subscribed across London.

Penny Roberts, chairman of governors at St Luke’s, said: “The school was absolutely not set up for ideological reasons. It was an act of altruism from a local church to provide something that was clearly needed – school places.”

Retired headteacher Linda Grove, a member of the body behind Abacus Belsize, said the new school is designed to address a “black hole” in Belsize Park “where there is no state primary school”.

One of the hallmarks of the free school movement is the autonomy each school has over its own curriculum.

Despite this freedom, St Luke’s is largely directed by the national curriculum, as will Abacus Belsize, save for minor variations which Mrs Roberts describes as “enrichment”.

St Luke’s teach Spanish to pupils from when they start in reception and similarly Abacus Belsize intend to add Mandarin to the national curriculum.

“No other state primary school in Camden is teaching Mandarin but we will do that because it’s the language of today and tomorrow as far as business is concerned,” said Mrs Grove.

Abacus Belsize has set its catchment area to the confines of Belsize Park, however if space remains once every local child has been given a place then the school will open to children outside of the immediate area.

Ms Millar sees cause for concern in such freedom of choice, fearing it may lead to “social selection” at some schools where catchment areas might deliberately “include more affluent families”.

But Mrs Roberts insists there is no need to worry.

“I hope that people who are ideologically opposed realise that there is nothing to fear and that St Luke’s is a worthwhile addition to the body of schools in the community.”

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