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Free Schools: Is there a hidden cost?

September 23, 2010 2 comments

In the run-up to the general election, education issues were at the heart of political campaigning. All three parties were keen to prove that a vote for them would mean improving results and more freedom for teachers. In reality, every government for the last twenty-five years has promised much and delivered little in the way of real progress. Last year, the Tories announced plans to allow parents, teachers, charities, universities and businesses to create their own schools. According to the Department for Education, “these new schools will be academies, which are publicly funded independent schools, free from local authority control.’ This is the first point of contention for many of us involved in education. Although there is always lively debate between teachers about the amount of power local education authorities have, surely it is an important feature of the education system. In real terms, it ensures that a child in a county such as Surrey, an area of prosperity and financial security has access to the same curriculum as a child born in a deprived former mill town in Lancashire. The goal of the National Curriculum is to deliver a broad and balanced entitlement to learning. Yes, it can be restrictive and it is virtually impossible to fit in its content into a 25 hour week. However, it is a fundamental building block of education upon which we can all deliver a purposeful, accessible curriculum to our pupils. Should free schools become commonplace, my fear is that we will lose our handle on maintaining standards in the name of making schools a business. Children are not commodities, yet why would any business have an interest in funding one were it not in the pursuit of profit? Writing in The Telegraph, Graeme Paton wrote that Conservative supporters of the bill claimed free schools would drive up standards and reduce the gap between achievement. Raising standards should be a priority of any teaching staff, not merely a by-product of competition between local schools. We should be working together for progress, pooling resources and ideas.

My real problem with free schools is it is yet another means by which to dumb down education. Primary education is often seen as inferior to secondary, as though teachers of older children are more skilled and better educated. This is far from accurate – teaching is a graduate profession, and in most cases, only an upper second class degree will get you through the door to interview. We spend years training, and every day of our working lives continuing to adapt to the needs of our pupils. If I were to go on a first aid course, I wouldn’t think I were qualified to perform surgery, so why do parents think that having had a child is sufficient qualification to run a school?

Payment-by-results is not a realistic part of the education system, nor should it be. Achieving targets in terms of levels reached is only one measure of success. Academic success is only one part of a child’s education. The value of the social, emotional and personal skills and attributes we teach our children is by far the bigger component. I’m far prouder of a class who, by the end of the year, have learnt kindness and consideration of other peoples’ feelings than ‘beating’ a colleague by getting better results. If external agencies are allowed to take control of schools, how can we ensure the quality of the education we deliver to our children. What about the children with a statement for special educational needs? They are never likely to reach the national average standard in a year, yet when they eventually learn to write their name after months of trying, they deserve every bit as much praise as a child who reaches the national average.

The theory behind free schools is entirely reasonable and justifiable. We have a duty now to ensure that each application should be considered upon its individual merit, and it should be made explicit that to be given the go-ahead, they have to prove the quality of education can be delivered, with the needs of the pupils at its heart, not the business or university supporting it. Yes, there are several issues with the national curriculum in its current form, yet until we have convincing evidence that free schools can deliver the best possible start in life to our children, I remain to be convinced.

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