The political spat over free schools is diverting attention away from the fact that our most vulnerable children are being failed.
Much has been made of the spat between deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and education secretary Michael Gove regarding the latter’s plan to liberate free schools by confirming their right to employ non-qualified teachers and set their own curriculum.The noise in the media was about the fact that Gove and Clegg seemed to be sending different messages, rather than about the role of central government, in coalition or otherwise, to ensure that schooling provision is made with regard to the needs of all children.
While Clegg’s protest about unqualified teachers and freedom from the national curriculum is to be applauded, there are even more fundamental concerns about the ideological nature of Gove’s free school agenda. His construction of schooling as a commodity – paid for by the state in the case of free schools and academies – rather than as a public service managed by communities and taxpayers and those they elect, eschews all considerations of equality, educational entitlement and the purpose 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 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. Why should it be assumed, therefore, that shaping children’s minds, facilitating their learning development and 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 the curriculum, why not set free every school from the national curriculum and let schools be run by people from all walks of life, irrespective of their values and dispositions, let alone their teaching ability?
There once was a correlation made between the quality of teaching and teachers’ understanding of how children see and relate 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 comes the freedom to debunk all that and raise standards by doing whatever they think works, with the schools inspectorate Ofsted the only thing standing in their way.
That would be bad enough if it were commonplace for government to put 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, along with children with special needs and disabilities, have been excluded from school.
While there has been an improvement in schooling outcomes for most children after 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 you see precious little evidence of Ofsted providing in its inspection reports details of how it holds schools to account on those and other equalities issues.
Despite the duty placed on public bodies by the Race Relations Act 1976, successive education secretaries failed to ensure that schools complied with its requirements. Few schools and colleges fully understood and sought to fulfil the duties of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. They chose to give that duty a low priority, and provided minimal evidence of compliance because they knew it was not high on Ofsted’s agenda. The Equality Act 2010, like the separate strands of equality legislation before it, has also been largely ignored by schools, while the government (and the inspectorate) continue to focus principally on school performance as measured by test and examination results.
In 2012, Race on the Agenda examined the government’s free schools programme and found that “when developing free schools, the consideration of legal requirements on equality and diversity, as set out in the Equality Act 2010, was inadequate”. Free schools are required by law, as are all maintained schools, to comply with the public sector equality duty. When making decisions and developing policy, they must therefore have due regard to the need to eliminate all forms of discrimination, harassment and victimisation prohibited by the Equality Act 2010; advance equality of opportunity; and foster good relations. To assist them they have two specific tasks: to publish information which shows they are complying with the general duty, and to publish at least one specific and measurable objective.
Race on the Agenda has recently followed up its 2012 report; the findings have not yet been published but are likely to show that the vast majority of free schools have so far failed to comply with the act’s specific requirements. Department for Education guidance for school leaders and governing bodies makes clear that free schools must comply with the public sector’s “specific duties” to publish equality information and objectives.
It would seem that “free” schools have the freedom to ignore the Equality Act 2010 and the safeguards it provides, especially to the most vulnerable in the schooling system.
Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission has similarly shown very high levels of non-compliance by schools, as has a study of schools celebrated earlier this year for their use of the pupil premium grant. Indeed, the DfE itself appears to be non-compliant. No wonder many people now suggest it should be known as the Department for Inequality.
This article was originally published by The Guardian newspaper on November 6th, 2013.
Picture (home): Print screen from The Guardian’s website