Misconceptions – those intentional and those accidental

My teaching career to date spans some forty eight years and during most of this time change has been in the air in one form or another –...

My teaching career to date spans some forty eight years and during most of this time change has been in the air in one form or another – sometimes it has been structural as with the mass introduction of comprehensive secondary education; sometimes it has been organisational as with the reform of primary education post Plowden Report; sometimes it has been in matters curricula as with Raising the School Leaving Age post Newsom Report; sometimes it has been in the area of assessment as with the introduction of GCSE; sometimes it has been in the pay and conditions of service arena as in the post Houghton world; sometimes it has been about children as with the special needs revolution that followed the Warnock Report and sometimes it has been about just plain old change. However, the common factor has been the stubborn resistance of the education establishment across all sectors to embrace change.
From ‘Half our Future’ through to Free Schools there have always been groups of colleagues who have resisted change with a great passion and generally with much hot air and noise. For some the objections are ideological, for others it is a very real fear that they will not be able to cope on a personal level with the change, for others there has been a real worry that the changes will not be in the best interests of the young people in their care and for some there is a clear sense of institutional, organisational and personal protection.
The reasons for resistance are perhaps easier to understand than the methodologies adopted to try to make sure that nothing changes or at best that the proposed changes are minimal. It goes without saying that for those colleagues working in the maintained sector resisting change is a personally risky business and can be seen as a call for mutiny. In the publicly funded sector we are all public servants and in a democracy our clear duty is to work and deliver the agreed agenda of the democratically elected government of the day – whether it is the one we as individuals voted for or not. However, we are all citizens and we have hard fought for rights to inform public debate and in our private lives to work with those whose ideas we find sympathy with to create a different tomorrow.
In opposing the current reality it is beholden upon all of us as education professionals to use our expertise to be accurate in all that we say to inform public debate and not to be economical with the truth. Creating intentional misconceptions in specific public debates is unforgiveable, extremely unprofessional and a clear betrayal of public trust. If we go down this road to serve our own narrow personal and organisational self interests we must not be surprised if the public become distrustful and we lose our credibility.
Free Schools are very much a flag ship project of the present Coalition Government and of the current Secretary of State for Education. Free Schools are effectively a laboratory for new and radical ideas to be brought before the Secretary of State for his consideration. As education professionals we are all too ready to agree in our private discussions that the current public education system does not deliver effective provision for all our young people throughout the length and breadth of England. Yet the offer to translate radical ideas into practice through the Free Schools initiative has produced howls of hysterical outrage and resistance from the usual culprits. It is clear that the Free Schools initiative won’t be on offer for ever and at some time in the future there will have to be an evaluation of all Free Schools to see what has worked well, what has worked well in patches and what has been a general failure. The outcome from the Free Schools ‘Experiment’ can then be laid out for public debate and future planning can be better informed so that all children can have the best possible education on offer. We live in a globalizing world and standing still in education is never going to be an option. We need to embrace change.
I have been privileged in that I have attended several meetings on Free Schools involving parents, communities and teachers and I have also corresponded and talked with many people throughout England on the possibilities presented by the Free Schools initiative, as well as helping several communities prepare proposals. The common message I receive from parents, grandparents and young people is that:
  • Parents want choice for their child
  • Parents and communities want a greater say in what goes on in and around their school
  • Confidence in local authorities to serve parents’ and children’s needs is at an all time low
  • Parents are worried about educational standards and want the best for their child from the publicly funded system
  • Communities want to take back their schools into genuine co-operative ownership free from the bureaucratic and expensive shackles of local authority control
  • Their Head teachers seem to have little faith in the quality of local authority services with many eager to bail out as academies.
Clearly the Robert Owen Group has a vested interest in all this with our new Robert Owen Vocational School opening on 2nd September 2013 under the Free School imitative but we do become concerned when we are subject to the introduction of misconceptions into the public discourse and when parent groups are vilified for their wish to save their school and to maintain continuity for their child. A sample of deliberate misconceptions to whet appetites:
  • Free Schools will be made to employ unqualified teachers
  • Free Schools will be forced to pay teachers less than national pay and conditions of service
  • Free Schools will take money away from other schools
  • Free Schools will damage local authorities
  • Too late to submit a proposal for a Free school now
  • Applications for special schools will not be accepted
  • If you put a Free School application in you will close other schools
  • Free School bids are submitted by idiosyncratic people – i.e. not normal people like you & I
  • Everything is fine around here we don’t want any new schools
  • We can’t provide you with the necessary data to help your Free School proposal because it would be an infringement of the Data Protection Act
  • We can’t as a local authority provide you with names of parents in the catchment area
  • The Councillors won’t be happy if you develop a Free School proposal.
So what is the truth that some members of the ‘education establishment’ seem to run in fear of? Well it is simple and can be stated in a few lines:
  • Free Schools once granted a Funding Agreement by the Secretary of State become Academies just like any other Academy
  • Free Schools have the ability to set their own pay and conditions of service for staff
  •  Free Schools have freedom in delivering the curriculum whilst Academies are required to teach a broad and balanced curriculum including English, Mathematics, Science & Religious Education
  •  Free Schools have greater control of their budgets
  • Free Schools have the freedom to change the length of terms and the school day
  • Free Schools don’t take money away from local authorities any more or less than do existing academies.
So let’s have some truth and fresh air in the system and please can misconceptions be accidental and not intentional. In five years time observers will look back on this period with its misconceptions and lost opportunities with amazement. There is one truth for us all to hang on to:  CHILDREN MATTER – ALL OF THEM.

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