Stop interfering and set our schools free

Stop interfering and set our schools free – Most worryingly, city academies are to take over primary schools. It’s all happening too fast.

The Independent
May 16th 2007

City academies, it seems, are here to stay. The outgoing Prime Minister wants to be remembered for the opening of some 400; so far there are 46. But the process is still moving in the direction that Tony Blair would like, because yesterday Gordon Brown announced that he would not be abandoning this new type of state-maintained secondary school, which accepts a modest contribution from a sponsor in return for places on the governing body.

As yet, these schools are far from having established themselves, and there is no great public demand for such provision. Most worryingly of all, the plan is for academies to take over primary schools. It’s barely tested, and it’s all happening too fast.
In some cases, parents and other supporters of “failing” schools have resisted takeover by commercial interests, some being seen as religious fundamentalists. And since there are more opportunities for academies to take over failing schools than successful ones, the claim that they are a better type of school is bound to be questioned.

Not content to wait to see the extent to which a few pilot schemes would succeed, Blair now wants a sharp increase in their numbers. It is reported that all-through schools are more attractive to sponsors, which creates the impression that the agenda is loaded in favour of commercial interests and not those of pupils. Despite Blair’s recent lame rhetoric about independence for state schools, this is merely shifting the dependence and vulnerability of state schools elsewhere – away from politicians who will be less easily be held responsible for any state-school shortcomings.

A further attraction of these schools to a government when there is a shortage of head teachers for state schools is, of course, that fewer heads will be required.
Teaching in secondary and primary schools involves very different approaches, and it will be in the nature of things for secondary schools to dominate any partnership. Economies of scale make it easier for secondary heads to take up causes outside their own schools, even to places where their expertise does not lie. Will energetic secondary heads with time on their hands tread carefully and be prepared to learn from primary schools?

Furthermore, channelling of state primaries pupils to one particular secondary school would close off opportunities to meet and work with children from other areas and different backgrounds, quite unlike the independent schools with which Tony Blair makes such facile comparison. Why does Blair not consider other, more significant differences between state schools and those that are independent: direct funding, freedom to set their own curricula, systems of governance, admissions and discipline?
In this particular instance, Blair’s false comparison oversimplifies what is normal practice in independent schools, the loose linking between prep schools and senior schools. It also ignores realities that are painful for politicians such as Diane Abbott, who sent her son to an independent school.

Compulsory attendance at school, and especially its unruly progeny, social inclusion, are completely at odds with any notion of independence for any school, state or independent. It is one thing to offer free education; it is another to insist that all and any children attend school. This is the crucial difference that Blair and other politicians ignore. Independent schools spend time negotiating with parents as part of the business of allocating places and see this as crucial to establishing an effective understanding between home and school.

The first move of those who want to enhance education should be put it beyond the reach of any vested interest, especially political interest, to prevent frequently inept intrusion, such as the modern languages fiasco, and to allow long planning in education. The second move would be to make schools truly independent so that only pupils may benefit from the work carried out in schools, and not shareholders, politicians or parents who merely require a child-minding service.

These have been the strengths of the public-school system. Many were endowed by the wealthy to educate local children long before the state involved itself. They exist solely to provide education, and only the failure of governments to allow parents to direct the monies allocated for their children’s education to the schools of their choice prevents access to independent education for more children. Yet Tony Blair claims to see virtue in independent education, and all the while surveys indicate that many parents who themselves attended state schools would rather choose real independent schools for their children.

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