The political spat over free schools is diverting attention away from the fact that our most vulnerable children are being failed.
Much has been made of the spat between deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and education secretary Michael Gove regarding the latter’s plan to liberate free schools by confirming their right to employ non-qualified teachers and set their own curriculum.The noise in the media was about the fact that Gove and Clegg seemed to be sending different messages, rather than about the role of central government, in coalition or otherwise, to ensure that schooling provision is made with regard to the needs of all children.
“Michael Gove at Conservative Party Conference” by Conservatives (Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
While Clegg’s protest about unqualified teachers and freedom from the national curriculum is to be applauded, there are even more fundamental concerns about the ideological nature of Gove’s free school agenda. His construction of schooling as a commodity – paid for by the state in the case of free schools and academies – rather than as a public service managed by communities and taxpayers and those they elect, eschews all considerations of equality, educational entitlement and the purpose of schooling.
The real issue between Clegg and Gove is how does freedom to appoint unqualified teachers who can “inspire” children and freedom over the curriculum ensure that free schools meet the needs of all children in accordance with equality and human rights legislation.
It is inconceivable that any health secretary would contemplate allowing unqualified paediatricians to run a children’s hospital, however inspirational they might be. Why should it be assumed, therefore, that shaping children’s minds, facilitating their learning development and acquisition of values and of personal and social skills, their identity formation and their academic development, are pursuits for which no particular training and competences are required?
If the claim is that free schools raise standards by being able to exercise freedom over teaching and the curriculum, why not set free every school from the national curriculum and let schools be run by people from all walks of life, irrespective of their values and dispositions, let alone their teaching ability?
There once was a correlation made between the quality of teaching and teachers’ understanding of how children see and relate to one another, and their capacity to form relationships with and teach those children (because they are not all the same). It would appear that with free schools comes the freedom to debunk all that and raise standards by doing whatever they think works, with the schools inspectorate Ofsted the only thing standing in their way.
That would be bad enough if it were commonplace for government to put equality and human rights at the heart of its schooling and education agenda. But for decades a disproportionate number of children from African-Caribbean and mixed heritage backgrounds, along with children with special needs and disabilities, have been excluded from school. Read the rest of this entry →