The Prime Minister is promising another 500 free schools should the Conservatives win the general election. This will more than double the 408 that are already open or approved for opening. With only a handful of exceptions, these schools have proved popular with parents and, freed of local authority interference, they have been successful in raising standards, albeit from the low base that ‘Education UK’ represents.
Since the first ones appeared three and half years ago, close to 70 per cent have been rated by Ofsted as “good” or “outstanding”. Equally significantly, a report by Policy Exchange shows that they are having a beneficial effect on neighbouring schools. The competition provided by free schools is forcing under-performing schools, in particular, to ‘up their game’. This seems to be a ‘win-win’ situation for our children. School ‘choice’ really can to work in favour of everyone
However, the teacher unions are not happy. They are wedded to the dead hand of uniformity and conformity. For schools this means one system, one curriculum and one examination. Such dogma sacrifices the best interests of children and prevents intelligent decision-making. Its failure has been evident for some years and our young people have been paying a high price. Many will pay that high price for the rest of their lives.
Even the Labour Party seems to have recognised the need for some choice. It was Tony Blair, after all, who ‘kicked off’ a prototype academy programme that the Tories have expanded to cover a majority of secondary schools. The only substantial difference between academies and free schools is that the former are conversions of existing schools rather then being set up from scratch.
Tristram Hunt, the Shadow Education Secretary, appears to have accepted that the educational landscape has changed. He recently told the BBC that: “We want parents and teachers to be able to set up new schools. That’s absolutely right and that’s where we agree…”. He may complain that some free schools are being set up in locations where, currently, there is not a shortage of places but such free schools are a minority and population growth will ensure that places will not remain unfilled for long.
So, will academies and free schools lead us out of the swamp of educational mediocrity and under-achievement? Sadly, structural change, alone, is not enough. Free schools, academy schools, local authority schools and private schools all offering, more or less, the same product – a GCSE examination – is not really a ‘choice’ at all. Imagine if all the supermarkets across the country were obliged to offer the same single variety of cereal or bread or beer. What an uproar there would be!
It simply will not do for politicians to promote choice of school on the one hand and deny choice of examination on the other hand, in order to protect the woeful GCSE exam from competition. For all of the current tinkering it remains thoroughly discredited; what a Daily Telegraph leader described as a “terrible” exam.
Lifting the current ban on GCE O-level would be a start. Restoring ‘approved’ status to the International version of GCSE would be another. And why on earth should so many non-academic pupils be forced along the path towards a so-called ‘academic’ exam? From the age of 14 they need to be following practical courses leading to high quality vocational qualifications.
Breaking the tyranny of the GCSE examination monopoly would encourage free schools and academies to exercise their freedom to step outside the national curriculum; to break their addiction to it.
The creation of free schools and academies are, then, a step in the right direction – but only a first step.