David Cameron has visited one, Boris says, “It’s high time we moved beyond the present system. This is a wonderful new approach,” and David Gove, the minister for education, is happy to have opened twenty-four free schools this year. More are to come. The most famous free school, within the short life span of free schools, has been set up by Toby Young, a high profile journalist. The free school idea is to enable people, almost anybody; Michael Gove would have us believe, to open their own school. It could be a group of parents, that fact is publicised strongly, teachers disillusioned by the present system of schools and religious and church groups. I would suspect behind the parents groups that are opening schools or who want to open schools, there are some of these education companies showing and leading the way, for a price of course. Parents, generally, haven’t the expertise to run a school.
Michael Gove , the Minister for Education, reading with some pupils in one of the ,"Free Schools."
So what is a free school? It is,”free,” of local education authority control. I don’t think this is a good idea because local authorities know their schools and their respective catchment areas and can provide help and support locally. A school on it’s own could end up with problems and no local support unless they pay heavily for it. Free schools get their budget directly from the government, the department of education. It is given a free hand as far as what it wants to teach in the curriculum as long as it has a core of some fundamental subjects, mathematics, science, history and literacy. These subjects are expected to have prime importance and all else will hang around them. A free school does not have to follow the national curriculum. They are being freed from that burden. They can pay and reward teachers how they like. They are to encourage excellence. Of course as a minimum, they must provide at least what the National Curriculum provides but preferably more. Some of these schools are including the teaching of Latin as part of their curriculum. School uniforms are required. A strong ethos of hard work is important to them. These things are being lauded but most if not all schools do this anyway.
One feature of these schools is that they must have an intake of all abilities and must not discriminate because of background. All this sounds very familiar. Apart from the loosening of a requirement to teach the National Curriculum there does not seem to be a lot different from the description of any other school.
But, here Michael Gove has his BIG IDEA. The Conservatives are great on BIG IDEAS. The free schools must have an ethos of hard work, high expectations and encourage children to fulfil their potential. Sorry, hang on a minute. That is no different from any other school either. Then what is the BIG IDEA, the new revolutionary approach? The big idea appears to really come down to setting up schools that ,"free,” the teacher to teach, remove some of the shackles weighted on the backs of teachers over the years such as the paper work.I don't hear that OFSTED inspections, testing, and assessment of teachers teaching will go though. The pressures are not being removed in those respects.
What I would like the BIG IDEA to mean is the removal of target setting, the abandonment of observing and grading teachers,the removal of the fear of failure, of sometimes getting things wrong. I would like it to mean that teachers could have ,”fun,” teaching. Before the National Curriculum came in during the 1980’s I went on a geography teachers course at the Slapton Lea Environmental Studies Center in Devon with the Surrey inspector for geography. He was a tall, ebullient, quirky, eccentric, flamboyant man, full of warmth and love for teaching and teachers. Socialising, having fun, having a good laugh and getting on together was his idea of a good course combined with learning geographical skills and concepts that we could take back to the classroom. He wanted us to really enjoy ourselves. I remember saying to him, “We are having too much fun here aren’t we?” He replied that happy teachers, having fun with what they are doing, is exactly want he wanted to achieve. If we were enjoying ourselves doing what we were doing then the lessons we taught would be fun and enjoyable for the children we taught. He was absolutely right. If we are inspired then we can inspire others.
Yes, that is what I would like so-called,”free schools,” and every other school, to be about. Teachers have always done their best under the difficult circumstances created by various governments. Children, having fun in their learning are more likely to find that spark of the imagination, of inspiration, which is going to ignite the rest of their lives. It only has to happen once in the thirteen years any child is at school, that one spark of inspiration. That’s all that is needed and it could come at any time. We as teachers in our classrooms just have to provide the fertile ground, circumstances, and situations and experiences that could enable this to happen.
From what I have seen of free schools they have been created by enthusiastic people who want a good education for their children and the children who have been recruited to them are enthusiastic about learning because of their parents. Levels of intelligence and ability do not need to come into it. It’s the ambition, the wanting to learn that is the key element. That is nothing new.Toby Young, journalist. He has written for Vanity Fair, the New York Press, The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator. He co-edited the Modern Review with Julie Birchill. He has set up the West London Free School.
To the detriment of these new free schools, it makes all other schools look as though that is not what they are about. Free schools are divisive in this way.
Instead of setting up free schools what Michael Gove should have done and perhaps this will happen eventually, otherwise it wouldn’t be fare, is free up all our schools. Get rid of the national curriculum, don’t put teachers under draconian pressures and allow teachers to create their own curriculum and have,” fun,” and teach with enthusiasm and enjoyment. Take all the testing and restraints away. I can hear some saying, what about the bad teachers? They do need help and support, to begin with, and then if teaching isn’t for them, help towards another career that is more suitable for their abilities. Our society is too rigid and inflexible when it comes to changing careers.
I think every school should be allowed to confront parents with, “education.” They should be able to say to them, "you have to be enthusiastic about education to enable your children to be enthusiastic too." Most parents and children are like this but a hard core are not, for many reasons. They need to be sold the philosophy. There are so many ways to persuade and influence people’s ideas and beliefs. The advertising industry, television, shops, ways of brand marketing, have been doing it for decades and even hundreds of years. We need to bombard certain areas of society with the belief that education is a vital part of life like eating and drinking. Social support, places to get help and information could all be provided. We need to win them over, with their children and then all schools, with the constraints removed of course, would be like Michael Goves idea of, “free schools.”