As any decent teacher knows, failure is not something to celebrate. Failure, in whatever form it comes – error, misconception, or simply falling short of a goal or target – is a key part of the process we call learning. If we only succeed, then achievements and progress are woefully constrained. Failure provides the opportunity for reflection, for consideration and for a change of tack.
What, then, are the lessons from the Greenwich Free School, which this week emerged from an Ofsted inspection with the dreaded ‘requires improvement’?
There are few schools that so epitomise the current government’s educational reforms. Lauded by Michael Gove, the secondary school was co-founded by Jonathan Simmons, an adviser to Gove and head of education at Policy Exchange, a think-tank who have long been advocates of free schools. The vice chair of governors is Tom Shinner, now director of strategy at the Department for Education. This school is as Goveian as it comes.
But, just a couple of years in, Ofsted have pulled them up for the quality of teaching at the school; not enough challenge for more able children, shoddy work in books and too little progress for children with special educational needs.
Of course, anyone who has lived through the delights of an Ofsted visit will know that ‘requires improvement’ can be a pernicious judgement, based on a dodgy lesson, an inspector with blinkers on or a blip in exam results. Come another day and ‘requires improvement’ can so easily be good.
Nevertheless, this is an embarrassment for the free school fanatics. It doesn’t fit easily with the rhetoric of unbridled success that such schools were supposed to bring.
And that’s the rub. Such was the expectation, the unrealistic, politically motivated desire to present free schools as the solution to all our educational ills, that they have been set up to fail. Put on so high and so unsteady a plinth, it’s not surprise that some free schools will noisily crash to the ground.
In reality, Greenwich Free School faces the exact same challenges that every other school faces: how to get the quality of teaching right, ensuring every child makes progress, using assessment astutely and wisely, managing staff and all the rest.
Uniquely for free schools, however, these familiar challenges are compounded by the double whammy of the pressures of setting up everything from scratch and the weight of expectation, under a Gove-generated spotlight, to be the best of the best in no time at all.
But this judgement won’t shake the government’s free school policy in any significant way. Gove and the gang are dug in for the long haul. The school may well turn things round and, of course, other free schools have been viewed more generously by Ofsted. That will be enough to keep things ticking over.
In these divisive times, where different types of schools are pitched against each other like football teams and where the team called ‘council-run’ is denigrated at every turn, all we can hope for is for a change of tack; a reigning-in of the rhetoric that seeks to argue that excellence and innovation can only be found in academies and free schools.
There are great schools, good schools, and not so good schools. We should be hunting down and shining a spotlight on the good and the great, wherever that may be – academy, free school or, dare I say it, ‘council-run’.