I have no ideological problem with Free Schools. My decade-old book on parent school relationships recommended that government experiment with parent-led provision. Free Schools could form an important R and D arm of our education system, providing they are properly researched and evaluated – everything this government says about Free Schools and Academies smells of optimism bias, and opponents have the opposite problem. As for Academies, my daughter goes to one, I have mentored Teach First teachers in a couple, and at Creative Partnerships I saw outstanding practice in many of them.
My problem is with Academy-speak, and what the rhetoric about free schools and Academies implies about the other few thousand schools out there. Government never claims that all local authority schools are failing – the evidence is too contrary, and GCSE successes in schools such as Bethnal Green Technology College (in a borough with no Academies) prevent any brash assertions. However, there are constant hints that those institutions and individuals which choose not to extract themselves from Local Authority so-called ‘control’ are somehow dull, stubborn or both. In this week’s DfE announcement about the creation of 79 new Free Schools, Michael Gove argued that “the people who are driving Free Schools and UTCs are true pioneers. They are leading a revolution in the education system.”
A bit like the PM’s call for real excellence, it’s hard to know what he means by true pioneers. Many of these schools are taking interesting approaches, from prioritising foreign languages to linking with independent schools. But every innovation happening in free schools could take place, and probably is taking place, in local authority schools.
The Schools White Paper also gave the same impression about Academies, as if any school not taking the Academy route had some kind of deficiency in capacity or ambition. At a recent academies event, one principal allegedly claimed that ‘only academies have true moral purpose’.
The decision made by hundreds of outstanding schools not to become Academies is not necessarily down to lethargy or timidity. It may be a positive choice around wanting to remain part of a family of schools, an understanding about what extra funding might not buy, or even a quaint love of local democratic accountability. Moreover, conversion is a bureaucratic process, and its consequences can create added bureaucracy. Many heads are simply choosing to focus on learning and leadership – standards, not structures.
For Free School and Academy leaders are in a sense bureaucratic pioneers. Their central freedoms, around admissions, assets and staffing, are mainly bureaucratic, not educational. Their liberty to veer from the national curriculum lies largely untaken.
Many academy heads are fantastic leaders, and there does appear to be an ‘academy state of mind’ of bullish passion, attention to detail and entreprenuialism that some Heads could learn from. But pioneers are everywhere in England’s education system, from small scale classroom tinkerers to revolutionary heads. The most intelligent leaders, whether teachers, Heads, politicians or policymakers, will look everywhere for inspiration, rather than confine themselves to one type of school.
A few Free Schools, especially Bristol Free School, look like land grabs on behalf of the affluent. No need for swords or ploughshares when you’ve got sharp elbows. But the vast majority do appear to have social justice aims at their heart. And their founders, leaders and teachers will be working crazy, passionate hours to make sure their pupils succeed. Welcome to the world and politics of schooling in England, and good luck. There’s a lot we can learn from each other.
One final thought. The words ‘true’ and ‘real’ appear to have gone straight from playground banter to Tory speeches. True pioneers. Real Excellence. It’s being used like the star on exam A grades. Stop this True/Real madness.