Page 9, 25th June 2010

25th June 2010
Page 9
Page 9, 25th June 2010 — Gove sets out his stall

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Gove sets out his stall

ugh David is sceptical of the new Education Secretary’s reforms Would I send my children to a school housed in the local shop? That is the prospect raised this week by the Secretary of State for Education as he unveiled his plans for “free schools” – those run by parents or other groups with state money but outside local authority control. It is one of the flagship Tory measures and has been criticised on the grounds that it will involve the building of whole new batch of school premises. Nonsense, said the brisk Michael Gove, a rare member of the Cabinet to have had at least some experience of the state education system (though he subsequently got a scholarship to a private school). Parents can open a free school in a shop.

Now I’m presuming he means a former shop. If this is about to become another Tesco franchise, then I will seriously consider civil disobedience. Children already know enough about shops and consumerism. I read this week of a new GCSE in “personal finance” – ie how to get a credit card.

If, however, Mr Gove’s point is that the buildings don’t matter, it is what goes on inside them, then I have a certain amount of sympathy. The previous government, over 13 years, spent billions on a school refurbishment and improvement programme. Some of this was much needed. Under earlier Tory regimes, the fabric of state schools had been allowed to decline to such an extent that the condition of the building was becoming an impediment to education. It is hard to teach under a rotting roof, with a broken boiler and leaking lavatories.

But New Labour then went too far the other way – symbolic of a wider failing. The most immediately obvious aspect of its academy programme was the millions given to architects to create shiny new premises to catch the eye of parents. The Norman Foster-designed Thomas Deacon Academy in Peterborough, for instance, costs £46.4 million. A beautiful (or ugly, depending on your tastes, though generally I warm to good-quality modern architecture) building is no substitute for good teaching. It is, in many ways, an indictment of us parents that so many of us have been so seduced by a chunk of glass and steel that we began to take them as the hallmark of a successful school.

So, a free school in a shop? Why not? But am I any happier with the whole free school idea? I can’t say Mr Gove’s announcement quelled my fears. Of the 720 expressions of interest so far received, many have come not from parents, as was envisaged, but from groups of teachers.

One such was interviewed on Radio 4 this week as I drove my sons to school (failed on the walking again). He was impatient, he said, with the way things were done where he worked, and he was sure he could do things better for children and parents. Two questions sprang to mind, which the interviewer didn’t ask. First, was his current school so repressive that he wasn’t allowed some freedom to teach as he wanted? And, second, if he was so keen to run his own show and test out his own pet theories, why didn’t he apply for one of the countless head and deputy head vacancies that governors currently find so hard to fill, as we have discussed before?

At St Peter’s not that long ago I joined my fellow governors in choosing a new head and we struggled to find suitably qualified applicants. We did get candidates but too often they were comparatively recently qualified teachers who had entered the profession late, were impatient with the demand that they learn the ropes, and felt they could walk before they could run. We turned them down because we felt they would make a mess of our school.

The “free school” programme sounds like it may well give them the opportunity they so crave and feel they so deserve. Who will foot the cost of failure? Children, I’m afraid.

Farewell to Vicky Tuck, head for the past 14 years of Cheltenham Ladies College, who is off to take up a post at the International School in Geneva. Perhaps it was frustration with that Victorian reference to ladies that drove her away. It puts me in mind of a finishing school for Hinge and Bracket. But no, Ms Tuck has revealed in the national press that she was bored of being made to feel “slightly immoral” for running a private school and having “to apologise for what we are doing”.

Privilege brings with it terrible burdens! How tiresome to be expected to defend providing education to a wealthy elite who can afford it so their children get a head start over everyone else in society who can’t. How much better if everyone would just let you get on with it without asking pesky questions about social mobility and morality.

One could, as I may just have remarked before, make a case that private education when there is a state system open to all is indeed immoral, certainly according to the teachings of our Church. You are all usually so good at picking me up when I take a polemical position, but remarks along these lines in the past have gone unanswered. Are they beneath contempt, or does your silence mean you all agree with me? Or are all the Catholic private schools in this country catering to nonHerald readers, or even non-Catholics?

Come on, let’s have a debate. You can send emails to me at [email protected] or letters to the paper’s main offices, marked for my attention.

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