Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, deserves unstinting praise for his 118 varieties of new state schools, on which we report today. The new schools include an English-German bilingual primary school; a secondary school dedicated to autistic children; a technical school linked to the motor racing industry at Silverstone; and a school specialising in the creative arts associated with Elstree film studios.
This newspaper has long argued that Britain urgently needs more diversity in schools: different approaches to education suited to different children, and different sizes of school to break the trend towards 2,000-pupil monoculture secondary schools. This ought not to be a party political or ideological point. Specialist schools and academies, which often espouse unconventional approaches, were innovations of the Labour government; what Mr Gove has done is to accelerate that push towards diversification.
It should be accepted that there may be problems of accountability with academies and free schools, but these are separate from the question of diversity. Stephen Twigg, the Labour spokesman, similarly misses the point when he responds to the setting-up of new schools by pointing to shortages of primary-school places in other parts of the country.
The important point, and one that the Labour Party should welcome enthusiastically, is that parents should have more choice of teaching styles and philosophies in state schools. For some children, old-fashioned discipline, with uniforms, long school days and the highest academic expectations, has produced extraordinary results, and it is interesting how many academies have followed this path. But for some others, the exam-driven academic model is not the best way to learn or to discover their talents. It is just as interesting, for example, that children in Norway do not start to learn to read until the age of six.
The need for unconventional approaches to learning is particularly apt in Pupil Referral Units, the "sin bins" to which excluded children are consigned, and it is encouraging that several of the new schools are devoted to these pupils, the hardest but also in many ways the most rewarding challenge.
Naturally, diversity must be constrained by the common interest, and in publicly funded education children should be protected from extreme choices made by parents. State schools should not teach superstition as science or discrimination as citizenship. What is more, sceptics about religious-based schooling are right to be concerned about sectarianism and segregation. Yet one of the new schools opening its doors next month is the Collective Spirit free school, a non-denominational school in Oldham, where existing schools are divided on racial and religious lines.
Generally, the problem with English and Welsh schools is that they offer too much of the same, and too much of indifferent quality, rather than that a few schools are trying out unconventional methods that might not work.
We need more schools of different kinds, and smaller schools, to give everyone the best chance of finding the right kind of education for them, underpinned, obviously, by rigorous minimum national standards. The Independent on Sunday has criticised Mr Gove often enough; in promoting diversity, we congratulate him.
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