I’ve got passionate views about the sort of school system I’d like to see in the UK.
These come from personal experience. I grew up in Kent, an area that still has grammar schools even now, and as a consequence still has secondary moderns (now rebranded as high schools). I was one of the lucky ones because as an 11-year-old swot in 1983 I had an aptitude for taking tests. I passed my 11+ exam to get into the local grammar school, one of only five out of the 50 in a big year group at my village primary school. I watched as some of the 45 who did not pass cried in the playground because they were being separated from their friends and sent to different schools or because they had set all their hopes on passing and were now told, aged 11, that they had ‘failed’ and were ‘11+ failures’. I watched as others expressed shock that the test they had not taken seriously had been the dreaded 11+ that we had sat about a dozen mock versions of in preparation. I watched as parents whose children had not got into one of Canterbury’s four grammar schools (divided by gender and also by status in those days between two ‘real’ grammar schools and two with that name which were known to be ex-’technical’ schools, an old layer between the grammar and the secondary moderns), scrambled around evidencing CofE or Catholic faith to get them into faith schools that were perceived as having a social cachet the mainstream secondary moderns didn’t. Meanwhile, I sat another day of four exams to win a free place at a local independent school as part of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Assisted Places’ scheme that gave scholarships to kids from poor backgrounds.
Four years down the line the divisiveness of the system hit my own family: my little sister did not pass her 11+ or her Assisted Place exam and wasn’t able to go to the same school as me or my brother. The tears I had seen in the playground came to my own house.
So I hate systems that force parents and children to make ridiculous choices at 11, to compete for scarce places at popular schools.
I’ve already had to explain to my son when he was five that he wasn’t going to the primary school where most of his friends were and where he had spent three years in the crèche and a year at nursery. I didn’t explain that this was because we couldn’t afford the insane house prices needed to buy a house within a few hundred metres of a school that is only 500 metres from our home.
Free schools seem to me likely to add to the insanity of a school system that’s all about dividing children up, not bringing communities together, and about lying to parents that they have a choice of school when in fact they can only guarantee getting in to a popular school by buying their way in to a tiny catchment area, or jumping through a hoop in some form of covert selection.
In my ideal world all kids would go to their nearest state primary school and then their nearest state secondary school.
I would focus on standards rather than choice. If every state school had high standards why would anyone want to exercise choice unless they were a snob and just didn’t want their kids mixing with the rest of their local community?
So I’m not massively fixated with the internal structures and branding of schools. If they are genuinely comprehensive schools that serve the whole of their local community and deliver a good education, I’m not fixated by the degree of local authority control or the composition of the governing body.
As a Hackney councillor I can’t ignore the reality of what Labour’s academies have done for local children. We’ve gone from LEA-controlled schools that failed generations of Hackney children to schools like Mossbourne Academy that are getting children from deprived backgrounds on some of the toughest estates in inner London to score stunning exam successes and get into Oxbridge. This is transforming my constituents’ life chances.
But in Hackney we insisted that all the five (to be six) new academies were non-denominational, mixed gender and truly comprehensive, taking pupils from their local area banded by ability (ie a fixed percentage from each band of ability from pupils with special needs through to the gifted).
If freeing heads from LEA oversight was what was needed to enable Sir Michael Wilshaw to create Mossbourne, so be it.
But I remain convinced that local education authorities have a role to play in deciding how many and what kind of schools an area needs where, providing guidelines and coordination on fair admissions, and central support services that individual schools would struggle to provide. Ultimately there needs to be some local democratic oversight of schools so that voters can punish councillors at the ballot box if schools are not up to scratch.
I don’t want free schools because they add to the anarchy in the system and the divisiveness that I think harms communities and pupils.
But I know good people who are involved in creating free schools and I cannot condemn them for it. People who have lost faith in their LEA to provide the kind of school they want. People who realise the free school initiative is their best chance under Gove of getting a new school that’s needed in their area. People who define community by faith rather than geography and if it’s a minority faith may feel that the only way to sustain their community’s identity is through a faith school. Not everyone involved in creating a free school is as annoying as Toby Young and we shouldn’t shun them because he is trying to provoke us.
By the 2015 general election there will be four year groups of pupils in free schools. If we tried to abolish them we would be destroying institutions that will be established school communities with all that that means in terms of the relationships between parents, pupils and staff. We would be going to war with thousands of parents who just want the best for their children.
I think Stephen Twigg as the new shadow education secretary got our positioning right on this when he said:
‘On free schools, I am saying that we need to apply a set of tests, that we are not going to take an absolute policy of opposing them.
‘The tests should be: will the school raise standards for pupils and parents, will it contribute to a narrowing of the achievement gap between rich and poor, and what is the wider impact of that school?’
We wouldn’t have created free schools.
Given a blank sheet of paper, a clean slate, I would create an education system where everyone went to the good local school nearest their home, and children and communities were not divided up.
But we will be starting from the reality of the UK in 2015 after five years out of power, not in a vacuum, inheriting structures that we did not design, and Stephen Twigg will have better things to do for Britain’s schools that starting by trying to shut some of them.
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