'Why couldn't we start a free school?'
Michael Gove hails them as the way to raise standards. But when Anne Broni and a fellow teacher sought the go-ahead for a ground-breaking project, it seemed their faces didn't fit
Last summer my colleague Kay Johnston and I began our engagement with the DfE; our vision of a free school, Diaspora High School, was at odds with theirs. What happened afterwards could be described as the Free School version of Scott's expedition to the South Pole.
We were planning to set up a school in south London that aimed to persuade local youths to turn their backs on gang culture by providing them with guaranteed work experience once they left school – so they would not go straight out on to the streets. An article about our plight in The Independent came to the attention of The New Schools Network, a charity charged with providing support for free-school groups through the application stage. We were offered free consultancy services including a personal advisor and educational advisors ranging from finance to operations. We were also advised to apply for a place on the "development programme", which was aimed at maximising the support we would receive. Over the course of the next four months we attended almost weekly meetings and conferences with other free-school proposers and our advisors. Through these networking sessions it was clear that the aims and vision of Diaspora were just as good if not better than our competitors; our focus on numeracy and literacy at the primary level would attempt to mitigate the difficulties pupils had in accessing the secondary curriculum, our academic and vocational education blocks discouraged pupil apathy, and our mentoring and work-experience programme ensured that pupils had a definitive destination at the end of their time at Diaspora. We had a plan for the beginning, middle and end.
Feedback from the New Schools Network stated that our application was getting better and better; that our vision was compelling; our curriculum innovative. That said, we were questioned as to why we felt academic children needed to study vocational subjects. To us and the parents, young men and collaborators who have supported Diaspora, it was obvious. To individuals lacking in class awareness it had to be justified. It is difficult to criticise the structures put in place but I often left these meetings feeling we were there to make up the numbers. This was indeed an augury of things to come. All advisors were well trained, with stock phrases such as the patronising references to our "passion" and "hard work". Criticisms of parts of the process were met with the defensive "we're new at this and still learning".
Most importantly, we did not meet anyone with a true understanding of the backgrounds of the young men we aimed to reach. No matter how you paint it, the experience of a comprehensive in the shires and 'burbs is not going to be the same as in the inner city.
Yet knew we would not be short of applicants to our school. Local parents were enthusiastic. Parents such as Sandra Smith, who had hoped for a place for her son Onorode, who is on the autistic spectrum.
We were interviewed by the DfE and were unsuccessful. This time because we appeared to be too ambitious. As my colleague Kay says, they did not believe that inner city boys could achieve Level 5s and A stars under our guidance. We are currently considering a judicial review. A fit-for-purpose educational system should be 20 years ahead of current thinking, and as such needs to be innovative and flexible something our current educational system is not.
The Labour governments of Blair and Brown instituted a top-down approach that was as far from being innovative as a bar of soap. The target mentality led to exam-driven teaching and removed all creativity as well as being he antithesis of lifelong learning. There are still too many children not inspired by the National Curriculum or BTecs; who will be even less inspired by the Ebac. The Diaspora curriculum is inspirational and tailored to the needs of inner-city young men. It's clearly too soon to pass judgement on the effect of free schools, but the controversial nature of who is and who is not deemed capable raises many questions, particularly when viewed in the context of the Coalition and its very public inconsistencies. Academies are reporting results that are not dissimilar to the state sector, some good, some not so. I know I speak for the overwhelming majority when I say all teachers want to do is teach. The only targets we need should be focused on ensuring that every child achieves their best without the corresponding bureaucratic hoopla.
The right wing of politics panders to the "demonise teachers" school of thought and this current government to my knowledge refuses to highlight any of the State's outstanding achievements, despite all the political interference. Instead it looks to small self-interest groups. Meanwhile the left wingers stay silent. On reflection, perhaps that's not a bad thing; education's dire straights are due to the fact that by virtue of going to school, politicians thinks they are the experts.
In hindsight, the Coalition line that ordinary teachers would be positively encouraged to set up free schools is a fallacy. Teachers and parents can only set up free schools if they employ the services of a management company or have a sponsor. The religious and independent schools also get a good look in. Teachers like myself and Kay, with real experience, understanding of our communities and the commitment to follow through, are the naive players in a game that increasingly is not about the majority, but the minority with connections to our current political leaders. We simply didn't stand a chance.
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