If you live in Brentwood, Ongar or Harlow you will have been forgiven for missing the front page story in last week’s Observer. Due to distribution issues, the paper was unavailable to purchase here last Sunday which may have come as a relief to prominent free school supporter and local MP, Eric Pickles.
It was revealed that, in the wake of high profile damning Ofsted inspection reports of some new schools opened since 2011, the DfE were considering action to avoid further embarrassment for the Secretary of State and his advisors by intervening to prepare ‘free schools’ for future inspections. The story is available via this link:
This is clear evidence that political, rather than educational, outcomes are paramount to the current regime and that even distortion of independent inspections is deemed acceptable in the promotion of the free school programme. Transparency and accountability are once again the casualties.
The report explains:
“The leaked document shows that the Department for Education wants to tackle the problems at inadequate free schools before their failings are made public by Ofsted, at which point they can be used as political ammunition. It suggests that party political considerations are now driving education policy a year ahead of the general election, provoking one union leader to claim that the public would be “appalled”.”
Of course, in undermining the inspection regime, the DfE are also deflecting attention from free schools that have opened and achieved positive reports. The sadness is that, in so many cases, the expectations for these schools have been set during the PR-heavy approval stage and subsequent drive for pupil numbers.
Too often, free school proposers promise to outshine their established neighbours prior to opening, giving themselves no room for manoeuvre when hitting the almost inevitable challenges of being a new school.
I have written about this so often that even I am becoming bored of doing so but, disappointingly, the examples keep coming. I have referenced free schools being reprimanded by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for describing themselves as “outstanding” prior to their first inspection and noted similar claims locally. Regrettably, some still prefer unsubstantiated promotion above cautious optimism and, it seems, there are plenty of willing recipients of the message.
Earlier this month, the Brentwood Gazette reported on the disappointment of some parents who had campaigned for Becket Keys free school but whose children had failed to gain a place for September. The appeal of a church school to those who applied could be fairly highlighted, however local primary headteacher, and member of Becket Keys academy trust, Iain Gunn chose to claim in the piece that, “it’s just a very high-performing school.”
The original piece is here, followed by a comment section that I wrote for the same paper:
This is just the latest illustration of what happens when pet projects are allowed to follow different rules to the rest. I believe that the approval process sets the tone for what comes after. The timeline to set up a new school should not be determined by targets driven by the parliamentary cycle. They should not encourage detrimental treatment of existing schools. They should seek the approval of the local people who are going to pay for them not just a small percentage of the community.
But none of this is a requirement for free school approval. Indeed, experience shows that just the opposite has too often been the case. Particularly where in areas where there are surplus places.
The effect of this is also to polarise the free school debate and makes the results of Ofsted inspections for new schools to be far higher stakes than they should be. No-one should celebrate a poor inspection report as it means that children are not receiving the education that they deserve. Similarly good outcomes for new schools should be praised and best practice shared.
The actions and policies of Michael Gove have actively encouraged this culture of winners and losers, but instead of stopping, encouraging a broad policy assessment and seeking a collaborative approach to maximise the chances of success for a new school, he now seeks to further move the goalposts to aid those he wishes to “win”.
Rather than go on further I would like to point you toward the very best commentary I have seen on this issue that I have read in four years. Education writer Laura McInerney’s blog is one which I have referred to in the past and she is particularly interesting as she has often stated that she is not prepared to be put in an ‘anti’ or ‘pro’ camp, but this news story has prompted a loss of patience.
I finish by highlighting one quote in particular in which she explains why setting up a new school is not as straight forward as we are told it is and why Gove’s approach has made it more, not less, likely for ‘bad press’ to occur:
“Teachers know that building a good school takes time. We’re aware you can’t pitch up in a temporary building, throw kids and adults together and magic yourself to achievement. That’s why most teachers (including myself) advocated for new schools to open in areas of need, delivered in close consultation with the community, and not ‘bragged about’ as the best thing since sliced bread.
“But what did we get? For four years we’ve watched as the Education Secretary denigrated established schools, diverted funds from others in dire need, pushed through half-cocked legislation, stole resources from Children’s Services, systematically obscured the public’s right to information about the schools (including names of applicants, the application process, and the impact on other local schools), provided Free Schools with ‘mocksteds’ and protection from the take-overs required of ‘failing’ local authority schools, and yet – after all that – the government is now asking the public for patience and tolerance because these schools are new? Are. You. Kidding?”
In a nutshell.