The price of a free school: Of course the idea sounds grand – but free from what? Or, more importantly, free for what?

Harry Eyres:

At this time of year there is always talk of education. The autumn term has started; some children are entering school for the first time; others are making the transition from primary to secondary; young adults are being driven, with bulging bags and cases, to halls of residence by parents who may be more traumatised than they are. And this year, at least in the UK, there is more talk than ever, because education is being “shaken up” by Michael Gove, a notably driven and idealistic, and ideological, education secretary; and also by a universities minister, David Willetts, of legendary intellectual firepower. A new class of “free schools” has been created; the whole system of university education has been rethought, or at least put on a different financial footing.
Of course the idea of free schools sounds grand – but free from what? Or, more importantly, free for what? Trying to get some perspective on what this idea of freedom might mean, I found myself looking back to two inspiring experiments in education, both of which were conducted in Madrid before the Spanish Civil War.
The more famous of the two was the Residencia de Estudiantes – the arty version of an Oxbridge college at which Lorca, Buñuel, Dalí, Falla and others spent time in the 1920s and 1930s, and which served as a seedbed for much of the burgeoning artistic creativity of that brilliant, short-lived time.
But the less well-known Institución Libre de Enseñanza, or Free Institute of Education, founded in 1876 by Francisco Giner de los Ríos, is possibly more relevant to my theme. In this case the word “free” meant very specifically free from the dead hand of state and religious control. The Spanish “Glorious Revolution” of 1868 had promised a more modern, secular, scientific model of education; but the Restoration of 1874 brought back not only the Bourbons but a repressive, state-controlled education system in which the minister dictated the choice of textbooks and curriculum, and forbade the teaching of non-Catholic religious doctrine or critical political ideas.