Category Archives: Academy Schools

What lessons can be learnt from Greenwich Free School?

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’.

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Filed under Academy Schools, Free Schools, Michael Gove, Schools

Watch out – there’s an Academy about!

Next time you hear a Government Minister mention, in serious tones, the words ‘deficit’ and ‘tough economic choices’ remember that, as a result of Michael Gove’s education policies, taxpayers will soon be helping out ridiculously wealthy parents by funding private school places – including the Maharishi School in Lancashire, where fees reach £5,000-£7,000 a year in exchange for a curriculum grounded in the study of transcendental meditation.

This surprising development comes courtesy of the much-maligned and increasingly dotty free schools policy, as independent schools apply for the new status and, critically, the public funding which follows it. No wonder free schools, the coalition’s flag-bearer for educational reform, are opposed by so many who see them as a drain on finite resources, with money flowing away from existing community schools and, in this case, towards those who can hardly be described as most in need.

But it could be, as Mike Baker argues here, that free schools are little more than a sideshow, a distraction from the real shift in school status: the headlong charge to Academy status.

It is hard to believe that the number of free schools will break three figures any time between now and the next election. Aside from the handful of existing independent schools that will convert, the sheer complexity of setting up a school from scratch will deter all but the brave or the bonkers (or both).

Given the attrition rates involved in such an endeavour, you would need thousands of interested parties in order to end up with any more than the odd school here and there – and there is no sign of such enthusiasm (partly because the coalition have completely distorted the demand for free schools – most parents find the idea of setting up their own school laughable).

Yet the same cannot be said for Academy schools, which are popping up all over the place as Heads rush to make the change and grab the extra cash on offer. Certainly, the incentives and the arm-twisting from the top is pushing in one direction only; what started as a drip is now becoming a torrent and, with only one in five school leaders ruling out conversion, it looks like Academy status will become the norm.

This is perhaps the real education story of the coalition’s first year in power: not the free school ‘movement’ (if it can be described as such a thing), with the ubiquitous Toby Young, the Lancastrian meditators and – brace yourself – the Birbalsingh experiment in Lambeth, but the seemingly relentless shoving of schools towards Academy status.

What is most striking about this change is not necessarily the virtues (or otherwise) of the policy itself, but, like so many of the coalition’s boldest reforms – think NHS – they are being carried out without any real sense of consent or agreement, let alone demand. Indeed, the coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats made no mention of Academy schools, except to say that they will be expected to follow an ‘inclusive admissions policy’.

Alongside ‘deficit’ and ‘tough economic choices’, it’s best to add ‘free school’ to your list of words spoken by Ministers when they want to disguise some dastardly deed. Because, if Michael Gove has his way, while free schools take the flak and the fire, the local school near you will quietly, surreptitiously become an Academy school – whether you like it or not.

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Filed under Academy Schools, Free Schools

Gove’s ‘Free School’ dossier is bad science

I’m a big fan of Ben Goldacre, the journalist who sniffs out ‘bad science‘ and exposes the way research is misused to justify ridiculous claims. He should take a look at Michael Gove’s dodgy dossier which sets out the case Free Schools. Buried right down the bottom of the page, after the press release, is the Department for Education’s interestingly titled ‘myth-buster‘ on Free Schools. It’s an unusual mix of hand-picked international comparisons, the Department’s own statistics, apparently solid research and some seriously questionable evidence.

Unfortunately what first grabs the eye is the sheer inconsistency of font (and font size) – it’s worth reading for this alone. How did such a sloppy document – on a subject so important – make it into the public domain? It suggests this document was chucked together with some haste – a blur of Googling and cutting and pasting – by a bureaucrat with only rudimentary computing skills: Times New Roman here, Arial there, a touch of size 12, then a smidge of 13. (It’s ironic that funds from the school technology budget are being diverted to pay for the ‘free schools’, perhaps they could be best spent showing our friends at the DfE how to use Word. If a student in my class had done this, I would have done my ‘teacher-frown’ and asked him to go and do it properly. We have standards, you see. Or maybe it’s an act of sabotage by an anti-free school pen-pusher – perhaps we should be grateful).

On the substance, the document does a remarkable job of conflating ‘Academy School’ with ‘Free School’, to the point where the two different school structures are apparently interchangeable. It does the same for ‘Charter School’ – the autonomous schools in the U.S. – and the U.K version of ‘Free School’ (there are of course similarities but international comparisons should be heavily qualified and, in this document, they are not).

This conflation allows the DfE to claim that ‘Free schools are in demand’ because a) Charter Schools in the U.S. are over-subscribed, b) On average there are 2.6 applications a day for Academy status (in the U.K.) and, c) Polling by the Confederation of Swedish Business found that Swedish parents scored free schools more highly than their public equivalents (this last one, incidentally, comes from a ‘Policy Exchange’ report – a right-wing think tank). Is it just me or does that fail to convince?

Elsewhere in the document, a positive report by the National Audit Office into attendance at Academy schools results in a claim that ‘Free Schools improve discipline‘; statistics which show there are more ‘free school meal children’ in Academy schools are used to ‘debunk’ the myth that ‘Free Schools will only benefit the well-off’; we are reassured that ‘Free Schools‘ won’t neglect SEN pupils because Academies have a higher proportion of SEN children than the national average.

One, two, all or none of these findings may be meaningful in some other context, but one things for certain: they do not make the case, as DfE is seeking to do, that ‘free schools are in demand/improve behaviour/improve attendance’. It is simply not possible to say the introduction of one variable (an Academy school, or a Charter School in a different country) will result in the same effects when an different variable is applied (a Free School). This is pretty shoddy stuff for such a weighty topic. Imagine a new medical intervention being introduced based on such an amateurish, convoluted evidence base.

Throughout, selective data from the U.S. is used to ‘prove’ that free schools in the UK will be a force for public good, as if our social, cultural and economic contexts are identical. Ignoring the research into education published by RAND (best known for military research and the nuclear strategy, known fittingly as MAD: mutually assured destruction), here’s just one example of why this is not the case:

I took a look at one of the research documents cited. This one was put together by a team including staff from Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania. The methodology seemed sound, it was well-written and claims were cautiously made; I have no complaints about the research.

But when the researchers set out what distinguished Charter Schools from their public school equivalents they found the former were effective because: they required students to wear a school uniform; students took on average two ‘evaluations’ each year to track student progress; parents of students in Charter Schools sign a ‘parent contract’; teachers get paid for taking on additional duties.

This, they claim, contrasts them with public schools and hence raises standards.

What’s the problem? Well, based on a sample of one (my school): we have a school uniform; our pupils take three (not two) internal evaluations each year; parents sign a ‘parent contract’; and teachers get paid for taking on additional responsibilities. Moreover, this is common practice in schools in the UK. So, in these cases, Charter Schools have fixed a problem that simply does not exist in the UK.

This does leave the other distinctive features of Charter Schools: longer school hours and a longer school week; and performance pay for teachers. That’s the nub of the issue: train more teachers so schools can provide a longer day and pay teachers well when they are successful. This should be focus for the debate, the main attraction: more quality teacher time for children.

Free schools are a side-show. If they want to persuade us otherwise, the message for the Department for Education is: must try harder.

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Filed under Academy Schools, Free Schools, Michael Gove, Policy, Politics - general, Schools