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Chris McGovern: Free schools liberate teachers from the tyranny of the progressive establishment


An unintended consequence of the introduction of free schools is that they have provided the possibility of employment in the maintained sector for dissident teachers. Back in the late-1980s, when our education system embarked on the revolution that produced the mess we see today, dissidence was crushed with a fervour. As head of department in a large comprehensive I wrote a letter, signed by my departmental colleagues, to the school’s governing body. It criticised what was, then, the new GCSE examination.

The written response that came back indicated clearly that debate and discussion, let alone dissent, would not be tolerated. We were accused of “insubordination and mutiny” and informed that our “sacking” had been discussed “in the presence of county officers”. The message was clear. Teachers who dare to challenge the fashionable new orthodoxies would have their livelihood taken away. Following a school ‘reorganisation’, both myself, and my second-in department, never worked again in a maintained school.

How refreshing, then, to see that amongst the latest generation of teachers it is still possible to hear a voice or two of dissent. And how refreshing, also, that these dissenters may find educational asylum within a free school or, even, in an academy!

Katherine Birbalsingh’s days in local authority schools were numbered following her criticism of the education system at the Tory party conference in 2010. She has found refuge through setting up her own free school. Her book, “To Miss with Love” (2011), gives a voice to those children and teachers who have suffered from what she describes as “the shocking behaviour, the dumbing-down or the chaotic leadership of our education system.”

Three cheers, too, for the prodigiously bright Daisy Christodoulou. Her dissent is expressed through the brilliantly argued and insightful “Seven Myths about Education” (2014). 25 years ago this publication, highly subversive of educational orthodoxies, would have made her unemployable in maintained schools. These days, however, she can work for an academy chain. Daisy’s greatest contribution is to use Ofsted subject reports as an evidential base to show that inspectors equate good teaching with so-called ‘child-centred’ learning. Poor teaching is, correspondingly, associated with lessons that are teacher-led. She discovered, from her own experience, that the opposite is usually true. Moving to “direct instruction” lessons she states that, ‘I was astonished at how successful they were.”

A third voice of dissidence can be heard in Robert Peal’s “Progressively Worse – The burden of bad ideas in British schools”, published today (April 28th) by Civitas. This offers an historical perspective that complements the work of Birbalsingh and Christodoulou.

Peal explains how our school system has got to where it is. He points out the nonsense of seeing the promotion of progressive education as ‘left-wing’ and support for traditional education as ‘right-wing’. Most telling of all, however, is his exposition of lost opportunity. Education spending in real terms has increased nine times since 1953. Across those years, levels of literacy and numeracy in Britain have remained largely unchanged; a situation unparalleled in the developed world.

Peel may have only two years teaching experience, at inner-city secondary schools, under his belt but his book deserves very serious attention. He returns to the classroom in September, but at free school. It is in the diversity of choice provided by free schools that he places a lot of confidence. I hope he is correct. However, I fear that he, along with Birbalsingh and Christodoulou, have done no more than to awaken the educational dragon that is the educational establishment. They may be winning the arguments but the real battles have yet to be fought.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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