Educating the British: Gove, choice and free schools

Est. read time: 17 min
"Deputy PM and Education Secretary visit Durand Academy" by Cabinet Office (Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“Deputy PM and Education Secretary visit Durand Academy” by Cabinet Office (Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Much has been made about the spat between deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and education secretary Michael Gove regarding the latter’s plan to liberate Free Schools and increase their numbers by authorising them to employ non-qualified teachers and set their own curriculum.

Michael Gove will have us believe that in order to raise standards and improve school effectiveness such that Britain can outshine its G8 neighbours in economic competitiveness, schools and those who run them should be ‘free’ from the shackles of locally elected representatives of the people whom we charge with the responsibility to ensure that every child matters and that there is a good school for every child in every community, capable of delivering to every child their educational entitlement in accordance with International Human Rights Law.

Nick Clegg, on the other hand, believes that ‘it makes no sense to have qualified teacher status if only a few schools have to employ qualified teachers’ and that free schools should have to stick to the national curriculum and provide school meals ‘that meet standards set by the Government’.

The noise in the media has been about the fact that Gove and Clegg appear to be sending different messages, rather than about the role of central government, in coalition or otherwise, to ensure schooling provision is made with due regard to the needs of all children and in accordance with the letter and spirit of equality and human rights legislation.

While Nick Clegg’s protest about the employment of unqualified teachers and freedom from the National Curriculum is to be applauded, there are even more fundamental concerns that lie at the very heart of Gove’s free school agenda.

Gove’s construction of schooling as a private commodity, one paid for by the state in the case of free schools and academies, rather than as a public service managed by communities and tax payers and those they elect, eschews all considerations of equality, children’s educational entitlement and the purpose and function of schooling.

The real issue between Clegg and Gove is how does freedom to appoint unqualified teachers who can ‘inspire’ children and freedom over the curriculum ensure that free schools meet the needs of all children and in accordance with equality and human rights legislation?

It is inconceivable that any Health Secretary would contemplate allowing unqualified paediatricians to run a children’s hospital, however inspirational they might be. Despite their superlative skills in inspiring children, I am sure that neither Malorie Blackman nor Michael Rosen would want to.

Why should it be assumed, therefore, that shaping children’s minds, facilitating their learning development and their acquisition of values and of personal and social skills, their identity formation and their academic development are pursuits for which no particular training and competences are required?

If the claim is that free schools ‘raise standards’ by being able to exercise freedom over teaching and over the curriculum, why not set free every school from the National Curriculum and let all schools be run by people from all walks of life with the capacity to inspire and motivate children, irrespective of their values and dispositions, let alone their teaching ability and competence.

There once was a correlation made between the quality of teaching and of children’s learning and between teachers’ understanding of how children see and relate to themselves and to one another and their capacity to form relationships with and teach those children, because they are not all the same. It would appear that with free schools come the freedom to debunk all of that and raise standards by doing whatever they think works, with the watchdog, Ofsted, the only thing standing between them and how they choose to exercise total freedom.

That would be bad enough if it was commonplace for government to place equality and human rights at the heart of its schooling and education agenda. But, for decades, a disproportionate number of children from African-Caribbean and mixed heritage backgrounds, children with special needs and disabilities and children between the ages of 4 and 7 have been excluded from school.

While there has been an improvement in schooling outcomes for most children as a result of a raft of government initiatives, the attainment gap between young people of African-Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Pakistani backgrounds and children of other ethnicities remains stubbornly wide. Yet, one sees precious little evidence of Ofsted providing in its inspection reports details of how it holds schools to account on those and other equalities issues.

Over four decades ago, some of us tried in vain to get the then Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) to require teacher training institutions to demonstrate how they were helping teachers develop the competence and skills to deal with equalities issues and diversity in the classroom as a condition of them being accredited.

Despite the 1976 Education Act and the duty it placed on public bodies, successive education secretaries failed to ensure that schools complied with the requirements of that Act. Few schools and colleges across the land made sure that they fully understood and met the requirements of the specific and general duties of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. They chose to give this a low priority and to provide minimal evidence of compliance because they knew that that was not as high on Ofsted’s agenda as other indicators of school effectiveness and of rising standards. The Equality Act 2010, like the separate strands of equality legislation before it, has been largely ignored by schools, while the government (and Ofsted) continue to focus principally on school performance as measured by test and examination results.

Unlike most of the other government services that impact upon children’s lives, schooling is compulsory. Parents face sanctions, including being sent to jail, for not making sure their children attend school, irrespective of whatever parenting challenges they themselves might be grappling with. School students are not a homogenous group any more than parents are. They come from a multiplicity of backgrounds defined by ethnicity, social class, gender, disability, language, religion and belief, geography, post code, level of literacy of parent(s), their own experience of the schooling system, etc.

Different categories of schools have admission procedures that act as a filter, ensuring that they admit only those students whose backgrounds they see as compatible with the regime they are operating and the profile they want to project to the ‘market’. At its root, our schooling system is one that extends and perpetuates social exclusion, both in its admission and its exclusion practices. Crucially and irrespective of their background, one thing is common to all school children: they bring what they are and they are what they bring to the classroom and to the learning community.

Some are competent learners who know how to learn, how they learn best and how to challenge themselves and stretch teachers to enable them to perform to the height of their ability. Others are challenged by learning and lack the capacity to form positive relationships with their teachers and other learning facilitators. Some take responsibility for creating a safe and supportive environment in which teachers and students could teach and learn. Others make it their business to create the chaotic environment in which they function best and which makes no demands on them but hinders others’ capacity to teach and to learn.

That latter group typically shows no regard for their own Right to Learn and set out to deny that right to their peers, not to mention teachers’ Right to Teach.

Irrespective of their disposition, however, ALL are required by law to attend school. This raises a number of key issues and questions:

What is the purpose of schooling and education? Does every child have an education entitlement? When do they forfeit that entitlement? Does EVERY child really matter? When do they cease to matter enough so as not to have their needs met, however complex, and their rights safeguarded?

'School Certificate Art', by Jonathan Ah Kit (Flickr)

‘School Certificate Art’, by Jonathan Ah Kit (Flickr)

I believe that the primary and ultimate purpose, the Alpha and Omega, of schooling and education is to humanize society. It is the duty of schools to ensure that regardless of the beliefs or dispositions of parents/carers, children and young people are provided with the knowledge, understanding and skills: to be comfortable and proud in their own skin, irrespective of race, ethnicity or social background; to be at ease with and respect themselves so that they can respect others, especially people who are different from themselves; to have high aspirations for themselves and develop the discipline and confidence to work in accordance with those high ambitions and demand that teachers’ capacity and practice reflect and extend those high ambitions.

The frustration that too many families of students from certain backgrounds have with the schooling system is that they have ample evidence of education as a route to self improvement and social transformation, especially for the children of the poor and dispossessed.

Increasingly, however, schooling provision is market driven and based upon neo-liberal ideology that makes a fetish of individualism and projects ‘choice’ and the marketisation of schooling and education as unproblematic givens. This has led to more and more semi-autonomous providers of schooling, with no accountability in the public sphere save for the extent to which they provide quality education as measured mainly by test and examination results, as if the sole purpose of schooling and education is to help young people get good exam grades.

Indeed, the last Labour government launched its ‘Back on Track’ pilot programme in April 2009 to examine how more and better quality provision might be made for the 135,000 school age children who were out of school at any one time, either because they have been excluded or chose to drop out of school altogether. This is the equivalent of 135 schools, each with 1000 students on roll. As Richard Rieser, director of World of Inclusion, wrote in the preface to The Case for a Learner’s Charter for Schools:

International Human Rights Law commits us in the UK to developing effective education for all in inclusive primary and secondary schools. As John points out, a schooling system with 135,000 school age children at any one time out of school, either because they have been excluded or have chosen to stay away, cannot possibly meet this standard and is leading to major social problems in our cities. Further it represents only the tip of the iceberg of failure, with the bottom quartile of the school population falling further behind their hot-housed and over tested peers. The bottom quartile is made up of young people who are white working class, disabled, black Caribbean or from other ethnic minorities. This represents a major social and cultural failure.

Reporting on the alternative provision pilots in 2012, the National Foundation for Education Research noted:

‘Of further significance is the changing policy landscape in which the Back on Track pilot programme operated. Part way through the pilots’ implementation, the new coalition government set out plans in The Importance of Teaching: the Schools White Paper (DfE, 2010) to overhaul the way alternative provision is funded and delivered. The Education Act 2011 provided the legislative basis for these changes, which include giving alternative providers greater autonomy by enabling Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) to have delegated budgets and pursue academy status, as well as permitting other alternative providers to establish themselves as free schools (England and Wales. Statutes, 2011).

These new reforms are located alongside longer-term plans to increase schools’ responsibility for excluded pupils. This proposal will see the role of local authorities as direct providers of alternative provision diminish as schools commission and fund places themselves. Schools will also become responsible for ensuring the quality of alternative education excluded pupils receive and their academic achievements will contribute to national measurements of schools’ performance. In addition, the new Pupil Premium will provide additional funding for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds experiencing difficulties at school and may be used by schools to purchase alternative education…’

Sixty years after black migrants started to make Britain their home in significant numbers, their descendants are still being excluded from school in disproportionate numbers and are to be found excessively in young offender institutions and in prison. The same schools that exclude them disproportionately are being authorised to commission and fund places for them in alternative provision created and run by private entities, ‘sin bin’ academies and free schools.

Whatever ‘quality’ schools ensure in such alternative provision, no young people will be fooled into believing that future employers, if they ever find some, or Russell Group universities would be impressed with a schooling record that included placement in a PRU and alternative education provision whether categorised as a ‘free school’ or a sin bin. The reality for most young people placed in such provision is more likely to be a foot on a staircase that leads from the PRU to the young offender institution and on to ‘pen’.

Five years ago when I did some work for the Prison Service in the North West of England, I was staggered by the number of young offenders who routinely made phone calls each week to their fathers in adult prisons elsewhere in the region or further afield.

Gove’s education reforms like those of his predecessors are taking place in a society where there are ever widening divisions based on wealth, class, age, ethnicity, sexuality, and much more besides; a society that has signally failed to make facing up to the Legacy of Empire and the implications of that for schooling and education and for the future of the society a key plank in its policy and legislative agenda.

The fact that some African teachers and parents who ran Saturday and Supplementary Schools for decades are eager to establish free schools and academies as a way of tackling low attainment among African- Caribbean boys in particular does not provide any justification for the government’s claim that free schools are raising standards for the most vulnerable in the schooling system. Apart from the fact that the majority of such applications have been turned down by Gove, however successful these black owned or black led schools turn out to be, they will not alter the quality of the schooling experience the majority of African Diaspora school students have.

The condition of Britain requires that the education and schooling reform agenda stop side stepping issues to do with: schooling and the notion of shared values in a liberal democracy; equity; education entitlement; equality of access to quality education; communities’ aspirations in respect of schooling and youth development; equality of parents’ ability to make informed choices; the capacity of school students and their parents to influence decision making and effect desired outcomes, irrespective of class and professional status; a commitment to eliminating educational disadvantage and the social exclusion that is a concomitant of it, and crucially, the role of elected government in guaranteeing the defence of the individual against invidious forces that do not necessarily respect the rights and entitlements of those who cannot fend for themselves, or who constitute the excluded in society; the social consequences of the commodification and privatisation of schooling. In other words, the very antithesis of a neo-liberal schooling agenda.

Education is a fundamental human right. It is not a privilege to be granted on the basis of social class, racial or ethnic origin, wealth, religion and belief, age, sex or physical ability. Education is for life and as such it should be possible for individuals to key in and out of education at all ages and stages of their lives. Education is not just for equipping people with skills for the workplace, or for enhancing the nation’s economic competitiveness in a global free market economy. It is for developing in people the skills and competences to take control of their own lives and to function as responsible social citizens, demanding and safeguarding their own rights, having due regard to and respect for the rights of others, and embracing their responsibilities to themselves, their families and to society.

There was a time when the Labour Party showed visible signs of believing in this, or something like it. These days, rather than Labour taking the government to task for its attempt to privatise schools while at the same time hastening to get rid of the Public Sector Equality Duty if not of the Human Rights Act altogether, we find Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary pledging that Labour would retain ‘good’ free schools and expand the free schools programme if they win the next election. Not so surprising, given the fact that Labour under Tony Blair did more to marketise and privatise schooling than even Margaret Thatcher would have dared. A logical extension of that, of course, is Labour support for performance related pay and a teacher remuneration model worthy of call centres.

Labour is clearly as committed as are the Conservatives to rolling out a three speed schooling system: HS2, Pendolino and Diesel, with ‘sin bin’/alternative provision students riding the diesel train.

Is it too much to expect leaders of state and senior politicians to ask moral as well as political questions with respect to the function of schooling and education in a society as deeply divided as ours? I used to be a director of education and for me, planning the provision of school places and ensuring that I improved parental and student choice by improving the quality of what was on offer was paramount. Where is the coherence in the planning of school places and the imperative to ensure that there is a good school for every child in every community if any Tom, Dick or Harry, Mary, Jane or Sue could opt to start and run a school and could employ whoever takes their fancy to run it?

Three years ago, I held a series of discussions with school students and their parents as part of my work with the Communities Empowerment Network (CEN) and workshops with learning mentors and teaching assistants in primary and secondary schools in London and elsewhere. If I were to sum up in one sentence the views and the feelings of the students, parents and learning mentors involved in those discussions, it would be this:

It is time for school students to organise themselves and with the support of their parents and teachers reclaim education and rescue schooling.

I believe we hardly need any further evidence that schooling and education and the future of our children are too important to be left solely in the hands of Michael Gove, Tristram Hunt and the parties they represent. A strong alliance of parents/families, students, teachers and communities, working collectively in pursuit of their common and particular interests, is urgently necessary to stop this secretary of state in his tracks and make sure Labour abandons any notion of simply building upon and extending the dodgy foundations laid by this government.

I want to suggest to Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems that Gove’s proposals with respect to free schools and their freedom over staffing and over the curriculum must be seen in the wider context I tried to outline above. As such, there are far more sinister aspects of that game plan and they all have huge societal consequences.

Perhaps I might remind Michael Gove and all those rallying in support of his reforms just how important teachers and how skilled they need to be:

‘There is no doubt that the greatest single determinant of a person’s experience of schooling is the quality of their learning at the interface between them and their teachers, and the quality of the sharing and learning that define their interactions with their fellow students. Throughout the history of schooling in all societies, caring, capable and committed teachers have transformed the lives and enhanced the life chances of many a student who might otherwise have drifted into hopelessness and been rendered redundant in society. Schools cannot solve all of society’s ills, nor should they be expected to. But when all else and everyone else have failed young people, it is the teacher who refuses to write them off and who continues to believe in them and their potential and to invest them with self worth that is often their life line. In every generation and in every society there are many who in adult life bear testimony to that’.

Gus John (2010) Preface to The Case for a Learner’s Charter for Schools’.

Don’t mess with the teaching profession and devalue their training, qualifications and experience!

Picture (home): “Deputy PM and Education Secretary visit Durand Academy” by Cabinet Office (Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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