Why – I ask myself at infuriatingly regular intervals – in our chastened economic times, is Michael Gove spending money (and so much time) on such a speculative, long-odds, hit and hope punt as free schools?
Let us assume the focus of our endeavours, whether you are a political lefty or a righty or a don’t-give-a-monkeys, is on the question: what is the best, quickest and most sustainable way to improve children’s educational experiences and outcomes (bearing in mind, of course, UK PLC is a bit skint)?
Even if you are an avid supporter of free schools, someone who thinks the answer to the question is ‘a: Toby Young’ – or, conversely, if you are a determined opponent and think the answer to the question is ‘b: anyone but Toby Young’ – it is hard to justify the monstrous amount of political energy and will being expended battling for (or against) a policy which will result in the odd school here and there.
More importantly, this is a policy which in essence misses the most obvious response to the question.
Strip the school experience down to the barest of bare bones, and it is not, I’m afraid, the governance structure of a school that defines whether little Jonny has an educational career of impeccable quality and unremitting excellence. It is not whether the school is ‘free’ or whether it is maintained by the local authority, that cuts the mustard for Year 7 on a damp Friday afternoon.
What does, then?
As boring and as straightforward and as simple as it sounds: it’s teaching. Or, more accurately: teachers teaching well. The oft-repeated line that the quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teaching is the fundamental truth that should guide all policy-making. To misuse Bill Clinton’s campaign phrase: it’s the teaching, stupid.
In tough times, businesses look to their ‘cash cow’; the steady seller that keeps the tills ringing and profits healthy. They keep risks low, invest cautiously and look for reliable, predictable returns rather than taking a gamble. Unexciting, maybe, but in these times, reliable results are rightly judged to be more important than flamboyant failures.
So, why not – when each public utterance from our leaders contains the obligatory reference to deficit reduction and cuts, usually closely followed by the ‘difficult decisions’ said things entail – go for the easy win and invest our scarce pennies on teachers?
At the risk of being accused of blatant self-interest and self-promotion, the science backs this up: John Hattie’s remarkable analysis of educational research (‘Visible Learning’ – unfortunately not in a good bookshop near you) picks out the interventions that make the most difference to learning. Handily (Mr. Hattie is very helpful), these interventions are listed at the back of the book; of the ‘top thirty’, nineteen are directly related to teachers or teaching methods (and many of the other eleven are directly related to teaching skills too – such as behaviour in the school).
And, critically, it takes a long look down the list to find evidence of the impact of structural reforms of the kind being supported here – religious schools and charter schools (the U.S equivalent of our free schools) are both outside the top hundred.
So, what to do? Attracting new and better recruits into the profession is vital; tomorrow’s teachers should ideally be better than the current bunch.
But what of today’s teachers? How can they improve what they do? On this, from Government at least, so little seems to be said (aside from the title of the White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’ – an attempt at flattery which fails to disguise the paucity of ideas within). If only the effort and the energy currently absorbed in establishing new free schools could be diverted towards the development of teachers.
Whatever cash we have – and whatever political will there is – would be most wisely invested in this area, not the unproven risk of free schools. I don’t mean more pay – I mean investment in the best training and development there is. Here’s a start: every teacher should be trained to Masters degree level, based on research and development which takes place in their own classrooms.
There will be few headlines, favourable or otherwise, to such a move. In fact, it would be very likely to send the dispassionate observer into a deep sleep – and perhaps that reveals why it seems so low down the political agenda.
Indeed at the end of a Parliamentary term there would be no new buildings, no Acts of Parliament – nothing to show for it, except a few thousand teachers who were better at their jobs, and many, many thousands of children whose prospects had been elevated and whose eyes had been lifted to see previously unimaginable horizons.