‘Freedom’ is, generally, seen as a rather important foundation stone in our liberal democracy. It underpins most other values that we hold precious. How disturbing, then, that in the wonderful world of education, ‘freedom’ is very much off the agenda. All schools, for example, including those in the private sector, have virtually no choice over which public examinations pupils are entered for at age 16.
The discredited GCSE exercises a monopoly. Some schools, including many in the independent sector, have tried to by-pass it by choosing the slightly more rigorous International version – the IGCSE. This loophole has now been closed. The Government has just announced that from 2017 the IGCSE will no longer count in the school league tables. It will join the index of forbidden exams, alongside the ‘gold-standard’ GCE O-Level.
Education Secretary, Michael Gove, seems to think that the newer and tougher GCSEs he is bringing in, with an ultra high grade, will regenerate our degenerate examination system. Rather than allowing different examinations to be in competition, such as GCSE and O-Level, and letting the best emerge, he has decided to strengthen further the GCSE monopoly.
This means he is just strengthening the collective hand of the educational establishment that has hijacked the exam system and that largely opposes his ideas of rigour. At the margins we may see some change, but behind the ‘window dressing’ the edifice of the failed examination is likely to remain.
This lack of freedom in the examination system is matched by a lack of freedom in most other areas of our education system. The educational ‘Death Eaters” from Ofsted aka Azkaban (“Harry Potter”) effectively enforce a single ‘best practice’ that explains why our schools are where they are today.
Yesterday, I spoke at a conference on Higher Education alongside the ‘Fair Access’ Tsar, Professor Les Ebdon. What struck me is that, actually, ‘Fair Access’ means unfair access based on what is described as ‘positive discrimination’ to cover up the failure of many state schools.
Within this gloom there is one small sign of hope. Academies and free schools open up the possibility, however small, of some beneficial change. I am not an uncritical supporter of these establishments. In particular, I am concerned about the amount of bureaucracy that has been foisted on them and the high cost of dealing with it. Of concern, too, is the unwillingness of many of these schools to take full advantage of the freedoms they have over setting their own curriculum.
Too many are simply ‘playing safe’ with regard to Ofsted and following the National Curriculum. Nevertheless, this new model for state school opens up, at least, the possibility of some change.
For Tristram Hunt, shadow education secretary, and ex-public-school boy from north-west London, free schools are nothing more than a “vanity project for yummy mummies in West London.” No! How ignorant!
Does he know anything about free schools? The only difference between free schools and academies, which were first introduced by his Labour Party, is that free schools are set up from scratch rather than being converted from existing schools. And are they all in affluent west London? Far from it! Burnley, Sheffield, Hull, Birmingham, Doncaster, Bradford, Thurrock, Blackburn, Tower Hamlets and so on!
Many in both the political and in the educational establishment seem to object to the notion of ‘freedom’ when it comes to schools and to schooling. They preach freedom but practice authoritarianism. This is gross hypocrisy.
Dante reserved a special place for such people in his eight circles of Hell. They are forced to walk around the circumference of Hell wearing golden robes that are lined with heavy lead, the symbol of their hypocrisy. One day, that eighth circle is going to be so full of educationalists and politicians that it will be a very crowded place.