The kids talk

Pupils from schools in Manchester discuss the advantages and disadvantages of free schools.

Anthonio Zoerzee can be forgiven for getting a little distracted at school. Water leaks through the classroom roof and more yellow wallpaper peels away from the tattered walls. His maths teacher snaps: "What's the point of us being here if you're not going to listen?"
Antonio wonders if this is the moment to say it: "What's the point of us being here ifwe're all going to get washed away by the water running through the roof?"

However, this picture has changed. Anthonio was a Year 9 pupil when he found himself working in conditions which, if his school were a factory, would be adjudged unfit. Now he is in Year 10 and, after a £17m redevelopment of the school under the Government's Building Schools for the Future (BSF) scheme, the all-boys Burnage Media Arts College, in Manchester has seen an improved level of student achievement. The headteacher, Ian Fenn, has recently been commended by Ofsted for his outstanding leadership.

Students believe it's not just the face of the place that changes when there's a shiny new building. "If you're in an environment that looks the part you think, 'Right, I'm gonna be the part,'" says Sarmad Hussain. His classmate Shuhail Ali agrees. "Even though a big deal was made of uniform in the past, it couldn't be enforced. Now, everyone feels smarter and it's easy to see the point of wearing your blazer."

But the Burnage boys are the lucky ones. The government scrapped BSF in July and other redevelopments up and down the country missed the chance to get a makeover. Instead of fixing its existing school buildings, government will give parents and charities on average £50m to set up "free schools". Real "big society" stuff in action, fully funded and free from local authority meddling.

Little wonder that there is scepticism about Free Schools at classroom level here - something the Coalition won't know about as they haven't asked students their views.

There are also doubts over the road at Levenshulme High School for Girls, which benefited from the BSF scheme too. This year both schools achieved their best ever GCSE results, with 40 per cent and 51 per cent of students gaining five or more A*-C grades, including maths and English, respectively.

Rebecca Davis says, "It's not just the new buildings that have led to these results. I hope that for anyone who goes to a free school that there are good teachers. Until you've got teachers who aren't just qualified but really want to be there students will run riot. We can tell these things."

When secretary of state for education Michael Gove spoke about free schools at Westminster Academy last month, he said the new scheme would be the answer to the "defiance and disruption" that defines many students' experience of secondary education.

But the Burnage boys think bad behaviour is blind: "The least disruption happens in classes where the teacher gives the young people a set of professional responsibilities. This is especially important for the tough kids who just feel claustrophobic if they're getting beat down on at home."
In fact, only two students out of the group of ten believe their parents would like to start a free school. However, Minahil Qureshi thinks her mum would agree with Gove's assertion.

“My mum would like to start a free school since she used to be a teacher in my home country, Pakistan. She's always comparing education there to here. If she set up a school there'd be a lot more of two things: homework and discipline. She thinks schools here aren't strict enough."
Sarmad Hussein and his male classmates at Burnage think that strictness is not the way to make people work.

“There's always going to be bits of trouble at school and not everyone can be expected to want to learn. The trouble starts at home. If someone's beating down on you at home or your mum's being abused or there's not even a family to go to, your mind is going to be on other stuff."

His fellow pupil Ruhul Chowdhury explains, "The toughest kids at our school get one-on-one mentoring from the local education authority to help with their work. It doesn't help anyone if they get kicked out and people try really hard to make sure this doesn't happen easily."

Currently, local authorities and schools have a combined approach to making sure care and provision is offered to all of their pupils. However, some teachers fear that free schools will turn their back on this kind of help.

Both schools have a diverse student body, made up of about 55 per cent of Asian students, 20 per cent white British, 20 per cent African-Caribbean and 5 per cent from elsewhere.

Critics of free schools fear this kind of multiculturalism won't be replicated under the new scheme.

“Diversity is the best thing about this school," says Sophie Saleem from Levenshulme. "We have an Ede festival and invite people outside the school to come in. Multiculturalism is passed out into the community. I think free schools will divide everything."

This might impact the curriculum as well. Megan Buckley says, "I know the parents of some of my friends don't like us studying PSHE (personal, social and health education). But these things are important when you live here."

The boys have doubts too. Ruhul believes, "All the different races and cultures at our school is a great thing. It gives you chance to learn from them. You learn that you don't need to let the colour of your skin get to you or that, if anyone is different, it doesn't matter."

Wondering if this could be replicated at a free school, he adds: "I know some people who can't afford to go to independent schools with a specialist curriculum and maybe free schools would just be an opportunity for parents to set up state versions of independent schools. Whether they're Islamic, Christian, whatever."

This is an interesting thought. For a "squeezed middle" who might otherwise have been able to opt for a private education, free schools gives parents with the chance to "go state" on their own terms.

So, do the students in Manchester have a message for Mr Gove? Yes. The free school idea sounds as old skool as ever. Instead, tackle the schools that have been free all along - even if it does mean paying a financial cost.