Parents have voted with their feet against plans to open a flagship ‘free school’ in London. It had to be ditched, because nobody wanted to send their children there. However many more of these privately-run, publicly-funded schools have opened across the country. Newly qualified teacher Tom from Bristol investigates…
Of all branches of the government education is always contentious- every minister considers themselves an absolute expert based on the fact that, um, they went to school once, usually private, and therefore know exactly “what it is like.” Our current heroic educational overlord has made it his mission to “reform education” by getting rid of “bad teachers” and “bad schools”; presumably by attacking the professionalism, pay and condition of teachers- you know those people who may know slightly more about education than a career politician, pissing on young peoples chances by cutting their EMA, hounding and demonising poorer parents, cutting social support to the extent that increasing numbers of children miss out on meals and suffer from undernourishment, and allowing unhealthy food to be served when they are in school. In the name of market choice, Gove has taken the New Labour project for education to its extreme conclusion, outsourcing and asset stripping as much of state education as possible to sell off to his mates in exchange for a cushy job once he has finished “reforming” our education system. Comprehensive education has never been perfect catchment areas, faith schools, selection by the backdoor and an overloaded curriculum have all hindered education. He is a key ideological plank (pun intended) of a vicious government that has dually declared war on the same kids he somehow believes, or tells us he believes, he is saving.
He has achieved this great wheeze by employing Michael Wilshaw head of Ofsted, the great tool for seemingly arbitrarily declaring schools are “satisfactory” (doublespeak for no good); that they are not suitably “high achieving” and therefore to be forced into becoming academies. Another key part of this brazenly corrupt plan is the free school programme: money is taken out of the state system and placed in the hand of the great caring armies of the Big Society who again, cos hey they went to school once too are somehow experts; horrible people like Toby Young- a man who finds it hilarious that the “PC-brigade” believe in things such as wheelchair access in schools and support for young people with special educational needs- he is odious- a man who achieved everything in life due to accident of birth- son of a MP and life peer- but ask him and yes, of course his path to Oxbridge was a great narrative of struggling against the odds in the name of meritocracy (a word coined ironically by his father, Toby would appreciate the double irony I am sure)! Gove and Young are idiots but they are not stupid, these are not pet projects, these are attempts to turn education into another moneymaking scam.
Now, in the name of the great fear that his little children may have to rub shoulders with the working class- or, heaven forbid, people that aren’t white in a community comprehensive- Young is the big sponsor of a free school in Hammersmith- because a second-rate journalist pushy parent and his mates can do better than a school staff, admittedly overworked and undervalued but working their hardest to improve the experiences and life chances of children; some of who come from difficult backgrounds and have a variety of needs; invariably historic outcomes of class inequality. The Great Govean-Young pact is this; these children can have a chance, a new school tie and five hours of Latin a week, they can learn how great the British Empire is, and they too can succeed like Baron Michael Young’s poor little self-made darling; and if not, if they bring any of the problems of, you know, living in the real world, the Tory world of rampant inequality and concomitant social miseries, into the school, or, being born with a disability (how dare they!) you can kick ‘em down the road to the underfunded comprehensive; and attack them further and further for not magically “raising attainment” and hitting arbitrary and artificial targets.
Yet people are increasingly seeing through these free schools at least – the government’s power to forcibly turn schools into academies – a threat to children and teachers alike- persists and its roll-out continues apace; as does shovelling child’s future on to the capitalist fallacies of free market and sham-“choice” in education and the ongoing attack on teachers profession status, pay ,conditions and pensions. Yet at least the free schools- you hope- are showing up Teflon Mike; the man who knows everything there is about teaching young people. In Suffolk people looked on bemused as misguided local worthies and religious cranks demanded the opening of more schools; in an area where every school is currently under subscribed; parents and local people pointed out “um, we don’t need more schools” but again Mike feel free to invest some of the money for your bizarre stalking horses for wholesale privatisation to um invest in the schools that do exist; how about providing those schools new buildings, paying their staff properly and providing kids with decent food at lunchtime. Other parents have pointed out the slight problem with letting creationists run schools.
The RSA stated the obvious in saying that “the impact of free schools would be enhanced if they were developed strategically in localities where new places are needed or where there is school failure, rather than investing in extra capacity in areas where the school system is performing well.” This is the case in Newham, historically one of the poorest areas in London and Britain and one, from the experience of my school days here (see, everyone went to school, everyone is an expert!) that has benefitted from ‘context value added’ the idea that although the kids may come from poor and challenging backgrounds what teachers and staff in school provide the kids is the best they can with means available- that is a great education; no pet-projects, no market choice- the Guardian summarises it well ‘In 2011 57% of 16-year-olds in Newham’s state schools achieved five GCSE passes including English and maths, just below the national average of 58.9% – a remarkable achievement in the second most deprived borough in the country.’ Thankfully when these worthies and do-gooders came around to Newham with their grand schemes people told them where to go, and even a man as driven and certain and with as much unaccounted for executive power as Gove gave up on this one- this is a small victory in a difficult fight- Gove will still happily see every school in the borough and elsewhere in London and across the country Academised, Marketised and Incentivised.
Our comprehensive education is too important to let a destructive asset stripper get away with it. Go away Gove you are a part of a regime that is happy to see children go hungry, you want to ruin education in the name of your bankrupt and barren ideology to make yourself and your mates a bit of money at the expense of these selfsame kids whose lives your millionaire cabinet seems to take great glee in ruining. We are for an education system based on need and not greed; for a new comprehensive system one that supports children, parents, teachers and the local community alike rooted on equality; this will only come about with wider social change.