Friday, 26 November 2010

Truly Free Schools?

Freedom is a lovely thing, and HM government is trailing “Free Schools,” to be set up by groups of parents or others. We don’t yet know what this actually means — an almost inevitable state of affairs with a new project at this stage. I know many educational professionals remain far from convinced that the answer to English Education is yet another scheme for school ownership and governance — that makes 11 different geometries for this in the maintained sector. Will an 11th be the silver bullet?

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:
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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
Anyway that’s my big four. I come across excellent schools of all kinds, but these are some of the big systemic wonkinesses that make English education harder work for everyone, and less effective. Any more out there?


Revsimmy said...

"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."

I was at secondary school in the West Midlands (a major industrial area where you would expect technical education to flourish) during the 1960s. The Technical High Schools you mention were few and far between. I know of only one of my contemporaries who got a place at one, and he lived much nearer the catchment area than I did. However, my first grammar school did offer woodwork, metalwork, technical design and other technological subjects for those who were that way inclined. My second GS had much more emphasis on the "grammar" (academic) aspect and eschewed such practical subjects, apart from Art.

In spite of attempts to introduce a "classless society", those at the top of our political tree are those with little practical experience of engineering or science, except in managing others in order to make money. Just look what has happened to our manufacturing industries over the past 30 years.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Many thanks for illustrating one of the roots of our catastrophic failure to maintain education that really did meet personal and national needs properly. I really regret the collapse of genuine polytechnic education compared to, say Germany or the Nordic countries, and do not think it serves us at all well in a new century...

cymraeg said...

Like Rev Simmy I too was at school in the West Midlands in 1944, a primary school, where having taken and failed the Grammar School exam I was considered a suitable canditate for the Technical or Commercial exam two years later.
This was generally regarded as 2nd best, and in my case, merely ensured a working life of supremely boring "office work".
Had I obtained a few more points in maths my marks would have got me a place in King Edward Grammar and a musical education which my parents could not possibly afford for me and which I bitterly regret never having received.
One of my brothers went to a technical school and became an electrician which he really loved and gave him a happy working life.
I believe the failure to provide a choice of either academic, hands on artisan training, scientific or art subjects at a really early stage in childhood is at the root of most class distinction and the cause of many personal and social inadequacies.
A properly balanced society needs a good mix of abilities and no government so far has found the recipe.

Erika Baker said...

The strength of the German system is that it links in schools and industry. After the equivalent of GCSE you would normally either go on to 6th form or start a formal 3 year apprenticeship whereby you are enrolled in an official training programme in your chosen company and also attend school on 2 days a week continuing with German, Maths, English and your training related subjects.
At the end you get a proper leavers certificate that is recognised everywhere.

Virtually every job is covered by an apprenticeship programme.

The plus-side of this is a well educated and more respected workforce than in Britain.
The downside is that it's virtually impossible to get a job if you haven't got the piece of paper that says you've learnt how to do it.

As apprenticeships are geared at young people it's virtually unheard of for older people to re-train later in life and the kind of life-long learning Britain is so good at doesn't happen to anywhere near the same extent.

Anonymous said...

VG here.

After 26 years here, and as much as i love this adopted country for some of its common sense, and the old-fashioned virtue it has of moderation and clear speaking and actual kindliness, I do think that Alan's point No. 1 is possible more important than any other, although the obsession with class is definitely odd.

Childhood, like marriage, is an honourable estate. Just as marriage doesn't make one into a green-skinned alien sub-human life form (no matter how it feels sometimes when it's awful), being a child means one is a personality and a unique processor and generator of all kinds of life, from birth. Babies are tiny scientists, it's all observation and testing results. ("Will she really go ballistic if I touch this electric cord? Yes. If I do it again will she go ballistic again? Let's see. Yes. I'll wait for half an hour and see if the reaction is the same.")

If you meet people, even teeny ones, where they are, you can draw out the best in them and they will learn how to use their talents. Confident and skilled-up people will make jobs for themselves if none exist. Isolated from society and adult life de-skills our children. Dispirited and uneducated young people who have been pithed won't be employable by anyone.

It starts from caring.

themethatisme said...

Thank you.

I'm running around saying similar things in the college where I work and am grateful for your synopsis which will help me clarify my arguments. Is the text of your speech available?

If there is a fifth element I would add, it is in the value of education from a young persons perspective.

The career orientation which you have already mentioned, to a specific role or industry, has debased the value of education for its own sake as a life choice. Coupled with the output culture the powers that be speak of our young people as though they were tins of beans running off a factory production line instead of human beings, and they are not that stupid. They know the game and it makes them deeply cynical.

Similarily, as I work 1-2-1 with the allegedly lazy, problematical, troubled youngsters in the college, the one size fits all approach to methodology and teaching does little to address the often difficult life circumstances with which my gaggle of teenagers are dealing with and provides them with cynicism's counterpart, hopelessness. I have already lost 8 students this term who have withdrawn simply because they no longer see university as a possible option for themselves financially. All but 2 of our 119 diploma students last year applied to university (and succeeded), this year almost 8% have opted not to apply. I have estimated that 7-8% of this years intake, will not return in the 2nd year due to the withdrawal of EMA. The new hardship fund looks to be set at about 15% of the EMA budget for this year.

Sorry, don't want to get into a list of my work worries really, but very depressing times for someone who places a high inherit value on education.

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