Free Schools: For or against?

The issue of Free Schools is one that continues to cause controversy. In many ways the debate itself shows how in the mire we are when it comes to education policy in our party. The truth is we have been tied down with old dogma, crusty old educationalists and a fear of the middle classes.

On top of all this is the battle between national and local government and the desperate fight to wrest control of schools from big bad Local Authorities. Now we have a middle class commentator as the shadow spokesperson for Labour whose first day in the job was to row back on comments made about ‘yummy mummy’s’ and pledge his undying love for free schools! No wonder education is such a basket case!

Closer to home in Coventry secondary schools seem to be doing OK. Results continue to rise with some extraordinary performances at schools like Sidney Stringer Academy, driven by an excellent Head teacher and her staff. The same cannot be said of our primary schools (with Frederick Bird being an exception) which have been through a torrid time recently brought on by OFSTED coming in and condemning standards as not being good enough. What though is their motivation and is any of what they say actually true?

On the face of it, their motivation is to raise standards, which we cannot disagree with. It’s the process by which they want to do it though which is flawed. Turning schools into academies or free schools overnight does not raise standards. How can it? You have the same kids, but perhaps more importantly you have the same teachers. Often, the leadership team will change which brings in fresh thinking and new motivation. But that can only last so long unless something more fundamental happens. An analogy with idiotic football teams comes to mind, constantly changing the manager and wondering why they continue to fail.

Last year, I was looking closely at budgets in Children’s Services in an attempt to balance the budget and redirect resource to Child Protection and Early Intervention. This budget had taken a terrible hammering from the government, which had seen the budget shrunk by over 50% in real terms in less than 3 years. It is fundamental to making children safer and supporting struggling parents. I came across a colossal budget apparently ring fenced for ‘school improvement.’ It ran into millions of pounds and seemed to support rather large salaries for staff. What were we getting out of it I asked? I wanted some of it diverted but was told because it came from the dedicated school grant (DSG) it was untouchable and any way it wasn’t my budget. Needless to say, I pursued the point relentlessly. Extra resources were identified for early intervention by up to about £2M this year from council resources in the 2013/14 budget, though I’m not sure what the current state of play is.

It was some weeks later that OFSTED descended and went to town. Suddenly, we were in a whole new ball park. Something had to change. For too long, this school improvement had often been driven by ex teachers recruited by the Local Authority on lucrative contracts. It was piece meal and didn’t work in any meaningful way across the primary sector. This has been going on for years under all shades of political party and I could see it was wrong. Head teachers do not like ex heads coming in to tell them how to run their schools. School improvement became more like school ‘gatekeepers’ with a so called ‘light touch’ to stop real scrutiny of what was happening. In other words, the tax payer was funding school improvement to virtually leave schools alone! It was a closed shop.

Things are changing now with poor performance rewarded now with a P45 instead of a new job with the council or a lucrative pension pay off to let them go. This has to be right if we want to do the best by our children who get one shot at school.

Problems have been exacerbated though by politicians holding on to quaint ideas of systems: ‘Comprehensives are the only way to get results’. ‘Mixed ability classes mean everybody achieves.’ ‘All kids are the same and the system will support them all.’ All out dated dogmas which totally misses the point: standards of teaching matter, not the system. Yes, you need good management. You need good Heads and leaders. But don’t get hung up on what a school is called. And as for this myth about schools under local authority control, what control exactly? For years schools have been able to do their own thing away from Local Authorities to school meals or HR through to start and finishing times and sourcing equipment or repairs. Any control comes from national government such as their finances or the national curriculum.

As a party, Labour need to be on the side of kids and their parents. But that doesn’t mean acceding to their every whim. I notice how Labour has come out in favour of Free Schools whilst at the same time Nick Clegg is busily moving his party away from the government’s position. Cynical he might be, but it shows again how we are being caught out and looking decidedly shifty. Instead of worrying about upsetting a few elite voters from the chattering classes, we should support all good schools and champion high standards and brilliant teachers and pledge to help them in their work and ambition for our young people. We should pledge to root out bad practice and failing Heads or teachers. The test should be standards not systems. That would get support.

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