The Impact of New Types of School

The parents of a ten year old these days might be forgiven for becoming confused about the range of choices open to them for their offspring.  My brother and his wife are two such parents, so you’d think that having an experienced, former headteacher in the family they’d be better placed than most to understand as they approach the buffet table that English state education has apparently become.

Should they choose one of the new academies for their soon-to-be 11 year old daughter?  Well, the nearest ones to their home are at least 12 miles away and were over-subscribed even before they took the education secretary’s shilling and rushed to convert on the grounds that they were ‘outstanding’.  My brother is puzzled – what exactly is an academy?  He thought they were failing schools that had been moved into expensive, shiny, new buildings and which were sponsored (usually) by some Christian group or other.  I explained to him that this was the basis on which the last government set up their newest brand of tinkering with structures, after they got tired of tinkering with what teachers did in their classrooms and in so doing de-skilled an entire generation.  The Coalition, however, broke all previous parliamentary records in order to rush through legislation enabling highly successful schools to re-brand themselves as academies.

‘Why would they do that?’ asked my brother.  I told him that an interesting by-product of this move was immediately to improve the statistical performance of academies, by throwing in with the ‘still not very good’ academies the new ‘really, really good’ ones.  The real reason for doing it, however, lies in the long-held desire of the Conservatives finally to rid themselves of their most-hated organisations, the local authorities.  The repeated claim that LAs ‘control’ schools has led to large numbers of people (even some headteachers) actually believing it to be true, thereby encouraging the conversion to academy status.  Then, once all schools are ‘independent’, the breaking apart of teachers’ pay and conditions (especially those pesky and expensive ‘gold-plated’ pensions) can enter its final phase.

In a recent speech on academies and their benefits, Michael Gove talked about ‘The principle of autonomy-driven improvement’ and how academies are ‘freed from the extraordinarily debilitating and often, in the worst sense, politically correct interference from state or municipality‘.   What those of us who fail to see why schools have to convert to academies to enjoy such ‘freedom’ wonder is why Mr Gove enforces even more controls over those schools which have so far resisted the urge to convert, if the ‘freedom’ he lauds is so vital to school improvement.

Academies – and their new-born siblings ‘Free’ schools – can teach what they like.  I was very interested to read that the ‘Christian Family Schools’, a charity which already runs a private evangelical school in Sheffield, proposes to open a ten-centre Free school in Sheffield and that on their website they state:  ‘We do not follow the National Curriculum at Bethany School because we are committed to developing our own distinctively Christian curriculum, based upon biblical principles and led by God.’  Not only that, but they state openly that not all teachers to be employed at their proposed free school will have ‘professionally recognised teaching qualifications’, which I found intriguing, given that ‘ordinary’ state schools are still (thankfully) obliged to employ properly trained teachers and Michael Gove has made it his aim to ensure that no more teachers be trained if they have less than a 2:2 degree.  Even more intriguing, of course, is the fact that Free schools (and academies, if they wish) can pay their staff whatever they like and are not bound by the strictures of teachers’ pay and conditions.

My brother is scratching his head.  ‘So, what you call ‘ordinary’ state schools have to follow the national curriculum, have to employ properly qualified teachers and pay them set rates of pay, but these new types of schools don’t have to do any of that?  And the government reckons these new types of school are better – how does that work, then?’  I tell him he’s looking for some sort of research-driven logic in all of this, whereas the present government is merely doing what has been driving education policy for years now:  cherry-picking what they like the look of and determining policy on the basis of ‘Ooh, I like the sound of that’ reactions by ministers.

The more cynical amongst us might, however, deduce from all this exactly what my brother did:  putting a wrecking ball to the state system, especially to the local governance of schools and making them all ‘independent’, opens up state education to profit-making organisations.  Add to that the dismantling of national pay and conditions for teachers and the principal cost for each school can be reduced, thereby making schools potentially much more profitable.

In December 2011, the BBC reported that a private profit-making Swedish company had been awarded a £21m contract to manage a proposed free school in Suffolk.  Of course, at present free schools cannot be run for profit by those founding them, but their governing trusts are at liberty to ‘buy in’ services from private firms.  The trust founding the Breckland Free school has given a ten year contract to IES.  Michael Gove has, in the words of the Daily Telegraph, ‘until now shied away from the profit motive’; however, apparently this has left David Cameron’s chief strategist, Steve Hilton, a tad frustrated and the Telegraph claims he has pressed Gove to ‘legislate for profit-making schools and have done with it’.

My brother will be sending his daughter to the secondary school he attended as a child.  He lives right next door to it and, like the vast majority of parents, thinks well enough of his local school to be happy about sending his children there.  But I think the last word on Free schools belongs to him:  ‘This thing about it allowing parents to set up their own school – how many parents have got the time, energy or nous to do that?  Isn’t setting up and running state schools what we pay our taxes to the government for?’

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Helen Freeborn

Helen Freeborn was a secondary headteacher for 11 years until she gave it all up to live in Greece. Now returned after four years abroad, she divides her time between consultancy, training, a range of writing projects and catching up with all the television she has missed.

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