The Board of Education I chair works in close partnership with all our 280 schools to support them as they seek out and apply what they believe is the best route through the whitewater rapids of today’s Education. We know various set-ups within our family of Church schools from the inside, warts and all, and one size does not fit all. We also have considerable experience of capacity building for schools moving from Controlled to Aided status, as well as an innovative way with academies.
Given the joy and privilege of delivering a keynote for the Fourth Oxford Education Debate at Oxford Brookes University the other day, the terminology got me wondering what a truly free school wold be like. With compelling loaded terms like “free” you have to ask “from?”“to?”“who’s free?” “for what?” and “how?” otherwise they just float off into orbit.
However as a start I came up with four things I’d love to see all English schools free from:
- Indifference: We have a very strange attitude to children in England. We vigorously defend them against harm. But look at what happens when you take a child into a restaurant. Distraction bags abound, because it’s literally inconceivable that a child could be part of a dinner party on an equal basis, like they would in most European countries. Many children experience life as embarrassing walk-on extras in their homes, not engaged with, confined to a world called childhood which is not quite normal and attracts an extra helping of criticism and cynicism. Oft patronised, ignored, belittled, told to shut up, sometimes even hit, bribed, packed off to school. It all goes together, and until someone can come up with a school that’s really sets children free from the British Adore/ Patronise/ Ignore / Thump approach to children, I don’t see radical transformation in children’s chances.
- Process Obsession. Some schools try so hard to get it right they get it wrong. The whole gubbins of measuring and assessment somehow swallows everything else. We need accountabilities and routines and measurements, standards, predictive grades, attainment targets and frameworks. But all these things are greedy concepts. They seem to tell us more about children than they actually do. You can spend a lot of time on them. They need to be treated as servants of the learning, not masters.
Any truly free kind of education has to contain its own process, and tame it, allow for flexibility, and make it accessible. It has to avoid the temptation simply to pile initiative on initiative to impress the voters every five years. Building great schools takes longer than the standard political cycle, and school improvement is a very subtle and time-consuming process.
- Third Freedom and, I speak as a Hungarian Scot, I’ve never quite understood why the English are so obsessed about Class. Why does our whole Education system predicate itself on elitism about the acme of everything, including polytechnic education. My French and German friends are delighted when their children land an engineering apprenticeship. Not so in England. Why, oh why? Back in 1944, why were the grammar schools not flooded out with parents complaining that their children had been allocated to the grammar stream when their real interests and passions lay in technology and the future so they needed a place at the Technical High School. I don’t know, but they didn’t.
Ancient schools to serve the poor were somehow hi-jacked by the middle classes in the nineteenth century, and it’s been downhill ever since, for a sizable proportion of our children. When are we going to learn from other European systems that do not require fear of failing schools to drive attainment in all the others, for example.
- Obsession with output targets. This is the assumption that All that really matters is the subject, and the job afterwards. As young people face a world where they will need to acquire eight or ten jobs in a working lifetime, we still ask schools to educate to the notion that they will go into a single career. The broadening lateral thinking learning that might enable people to make personal choices that will be fruitful, is treated as a sideshow as horizons contract and every school has to fight the temptation to become a crammer’s.
I think there must be some sort of national curriculum, and I’ve come across great examples of it being used creatively, but I am disturbed to meet good students who are simply crammed for exams, with little hinterland or capacity to look beyond the answers expected of them. Associated with this, some schools are tempted to play the system by fiddling around with targets and other dark arts which I won’t go into but are well-known to all. This approach generally recalls that of the electronics goods warehouse in the Midwest that managed to achieve 100% success at the target of getting all orders out by close of business by yanking the phone socket out of the wall