Friday, 18 June 2010

The future for free schools

The coalition's plans for free schools are given a bit more detail today. As I reported in my recent Public Finance article, there is a greater emphasis on the potential for teacher-led than parent-led schools. Otherwise, we are told that a group of 50 or so parents could club together to demand a new primary school; a larger number will be needed for a secondary (the latter are more likely to be developed by existing academy providers and secondary schools). They will be governed in a way similar to academies, and subject to Ofsted inspections, tests and tables. And the talk now is of taking over shops rather than shiny new buildings. So far, so predictable - and there was a sensible recognition this morning that some will fail, as has happened to over 600 of the 5000+ charter schools in the US .

I have no doubt that there will a number of high profile free school developments, including Toby Young's much publicised plans and those supported by some of the Teach First graduates. A more difficult group will be those parents who set up a free school simply to stymie local authority rationalisations: at a time of spending cuts, there will be some high profile battles with angry councillors. Equally, there will be plenty of difficult judgment calls when the bids from Muslim schools emerge, though it is likely that the efforts of scientologists and other cults will be stopped unless they successfully disguise their true backers.

Labour should not oppose the development of free schools, provided they are non-selective. After all, they build on an architecture developed in its education bills. The main change proposed by Michael Gove is a freeing up of planning restrictions that councils had used - with no attempt by Ed Balls to stop them doing so - to block the parental rights to demand a new school set out in the 2006 Education and Inspections Act. Instead of adopting a kneejerk defence of existing planning rules or local authorities, the next leader of the Labour party should look creatively at the model to develop imaginative new groups of free schools including in disadvantaged areas, some of which might challenge the rigid curriculum orthodoxy schizophrenically embraced by the Conservative front bench. Indeed, such imaginative thinking would be far more likely to help us win back Southern voters than talk of abolishing the charitable status of independent schools.

However, the programme's supporters are being a touch naive in their expectations about how rapidly this programme will develop. The £50 million diversity pot announced today will help some, but it will take a lot more effort than they think to develop a programme of Swedish-style or US charter school proportions. The main reason is that both systems lacked diversity before those developments. Indeed, Swedish free schools are still required to teach the national curriculum. By contrast, a huge diversity and significant autonomy has developed in our system under both Labour and Conservative governments. Not only will there be in excess of 300 academies from this autumn, there are thousands of religious schools (that don't get public funding in the US) and over 1200 foundation schools that have many of the freedoms enjoyed by academies already. Moreover, the degree of autonomy over staff and budgets enjoyed by community - local authority - school heads is far greater than in most other developed countries. Of course, there are challenges in moving our system towards the achievement levels of countries or territories with much higher degrees of ethnic homogeneity like Finland or Singapore, and Gove is right to be ambitious about improving standards, though he is wrong to underestimate how much progress has been made in recent years. But a far greater contribution to that further improvement is likely to emerge from plans for the expansion of mainstream academies, better teacher quality and strong accountability.

1 comment:

Iftikhar Ahmad said...

Almost all children now believe they go to school to pass exams. The idea that they may be there for an education is irrelevant. State schools have become exam factories, interested only in A to C Grades. They do not educate children. Exam results do not reflect a candidate’s innate ability. Employers have moaned for years that too many employees cannot read or write properly. According to a survey, school-leavers and even graduates lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. More and more companies are having to provide remedial training to new staff, who can’t write clear instructions, do simple maths, or solve problems. Both graduates and school-leavers were also criticised for their sloppy time-keeping, ignorance of basic customer service and lack of self-discipline.

Bilingual Muslims children have a right, as much as any other faith group, to be taught their culture, languages and faith alongside a mainstream curriculum. More faith schools will be opened under sweeping reforms of the education system in England. There is a dire need for the growth of state funded Muslim schools to meet the growing needs and demands of the Muslim parents and children. Now the time has come that parents and community should take over the running of their local schools. Parent-run schools will give the diversity, the choice and the competition that the wealthy have in the private sector. Parents can perform a better job than the Local Authority because parents have a genuine vested interest. The Local Authority simply cannot be trusted.

The British Government is planning to make it easier to schools to “opt out” from the Local Authorities. Muslim children in state schools feel isolated and confused about who they are. This can cause dissatisfaction and lead them into criminality, and the lack of a true understanding of Islam can ultimately make them more susceptible to the teachings of fundamentalists like Christians during the middle ages and Jews in recent times in Palestine. Fundamentalism is nothing to do with Islam and Muslim; you are either a Muslim or a non-Muslim.

There are hundreds of state primary and secondary schools where Muslim pupils are in majority. In my opinion all such schools may be opted out to become Muslim Academies. This mean the Muslim children will get a decent education. Muslim schools turned out balanced citizens, more tolerant of others and less likely to succumb to criminality or extremism. Muslim schools give young people confidence in who they are and an understanding of Islam’s teaching of tolerance and respect which prepares them for a positive and fulfilling role in society. Muslim schools are attractive to Muslim parents because they have better discipline and teaching Islamic values. Children like discipline, structure and boundaries. Bilingual Muslim children need Bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods, who understand their needs and demands.

None of the British Muslims convicted following the riots in Bradford and Oldham in 2001 or any of those linked to the London bombings had been to Islamic schools. An American Think Tank studied the educational back ground of 300 Jihadists; none of them were educated in Pakistani Madrasas. They were all Western educated by non-Muslim teachers. Bilingual Muslim children need bilingual Muslim teachers as role models. A Cambridge University study found that single-sex classes could make a big difference for boys. They perform better in single-sex classes. The research is promising because male students in the study saw noticeable gains in the grades. The study confirms the Islamic notion that academic achievement is better in single-sex classes.
Iftikhar Ahmad