Tag Archives: free schools

Morgan – More of the same

I’m sure every teacher, parent or educator was jumping up and down with joy at the departure of Michael Gove, I know I sure was. What I was also hoping for is this means that the new secretary Nicky Morgan would slow down a few of her predecessors changes which are deemed somewhat controversial.

Well sadly for all you optimists out there, Mrs Morgan’s first speech in the House of Commons didn’t bode well. Mrs Morgan pledged to carry on the work of Michael Gove by radically expanding free schools, supporting unqualified teachers and keeping changes to the exam system, despite the unpopularity of her predecessor with teachers. Morgan made clear she admired Gove’s legacy and would maintain “undimmed” enthusiasm for free schools – the programme of new state-funded schools built by third parties such as parent groups, education charities or religious groups.

She made the remarks after Richard Fuller, MP for Bedford, said Gove had not been radical on free schools and called for a rapid expansion of the programme across the country, to which Morgan replied: “Can I thank the honourable gentleman? It’s always very exciting to be tempted and asked to be more radical. Absolutely. I am undimmed in my commitment to free schools and look forward to working with him and members on all sides in getting more free schools up and running.”

Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, called on Morgan to “make the break and put the interests of pupils and teachers above Tory party ideology” by ditching the party’s commitment to allowing unqualified teachers in free schools. He said Gove was “a man full of ideas – they just happened to be the wrong ones”. But Morgan responded by mocking his “theatricals typical of someone who took part in the Cambridge Footlights as he did”. She also accused the history lecturer, who has a doctorate from the University of Cambridge, of being an unqualified teacher himself. After ignoring the insult, Hunt asked Morgan whether she would slow down the government’s “rushed curriculum changes that risk undermining faith in the examination system, causing confusion for pupils and parents?”

“Already Ofqual has warned of greater than normal turbulence in examination results this summer. Is the secretary of state fully satisfied that her government’s changes will not compromise fairness and consistency as pupils receive their results in August?” he asked.

Gove argued his changes to the curriculum would make education more rigorous by placing more emphasis on “knowledge-based” exams and less on coursework. His critics accused him of trying to bring them in too quickly, returning to old-fashioned ideas and meddling too much in specifics of what should be taught, such as prioritising British history and authors.

Morgan, who described Gove as “one of the great reforming secretaries of state for education”, replied that she was confident in the exam results because a quarter of a million fewer pupils were now in underperforming schools and there were 800,000 more pupils at schools rated good and outstanding.

“That is the legacy left by my right hon friend the member for Surrey Heath, which I intend to be building on,” she said.

Morgan did not comment directly on last week’s report about extremism in Birmingham schools, which revealed evidence of “coordinated, deliberate and sustained action to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamist ethos into some schools in the city”.

The conclusion emerged from a draft of a report leaked to the Guardian, which was commissioned by Gove and written by Peter Clarke, the former head of the Metropolitan police’s counter-terrorism command.

Morgan will make a statement in the Commons on the report at some point today and told Birmingham Ladywood MP Shabana Mahmood: “There is absolutely no place for extremist views in our schools.” She declined an invitation from Liam Byrne, the Birmingham Hodge Hill MP, to apologise for failings by the government to keep schools in the city in check.

Teachers are banking on Morgan to build bridges with their profession after criticism that Gove dismissed much of the educational establishment as “the blob” and pushed through radical changes without listening to warnings about the possible consequences. The Observer reported on Sunday that Morgan rewrote a final ministerial statement from her predecessor to include a promise to listen to their views on schools reform.

The new education secretary has said she will be “nice to teachers”, but she made it clear in an interview with the Sunday Times that she would not be “soft-pedalling” in the job.

This is an interesting point for those who have followed my blog before and remember my post Prosecute the term time holiday parents! (Can be found here if you haven’t read it: https://markmelaney.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/prosecute-the-term-time-holiday-parents/ ). She also backed Gove’s changes that mean parents can be fined for taking their children out of school in term time. She said: “For every day or half-day that a child misses school, it does affect their education. From the prime minister downwards, we have made it clear that being in schools during term time is the best place for children to be. I’m really clear that will continue.”

So all in all, what to make of Mrs Morgan so far? Well being brutally honest there were little glimpses there, particular regarding to term time holiday debacle and the rewriting of a final ministerial statement to give the educational establishment a bit of input which didn’t happen under Gove. But the reality is, it’s all more of the same. More and more unqualified teachers are set to enter our schools, despite the fact that it completely undermines the profession to the point where can we really call teaching a profession anymore? With all these free schools appearing is there a need for universities to offer teacher training programmes at all when even with a degree your job can be secured by someone who has no degree whatsoever. That is of course a whole different debate.

I don’t believe in free schools, I never have done, although most of what I know about them comes from looking from the outside at media and polls etc. The fact that unqualified teachers could be teaching the next generation of kids worries me too much to want to be in a free school (that’s not to say I wouldn’t teach in one if the job came round). If there is any policy stopped this is one I would definitely like to see grounded to a halt.

Exams have always been a tricky one throughout my years of existence and beyond that. I’m not old enough to remember O-levels or such like, but the change from O-levels to SATs, GCSEs and A levels has been all over the shot. The debate between exams and coursework will go on forever and a day but I do feel that you can look back on a lot more with coursework than you can with exams because exams is basically how much can you remember in the allotted time frame. Time is an unnecessary pressure for me when it comes to exams. What I find interesting is that Scotland’s new system is actually heading the other direction towards a more coursework based exam structure, so in the next couple of years we’ll get a pretty good picture as to what the differences are in performance.


Good news for free school fans

Well they may have been put under serious scrutiny by just about everyone in the profession since they came in, and had plenty of mixed reviews, but today brings some good news for the government about their Free School programme.

A school in one of the poorest parts of Britain is sending six pupils to Oxford or Cambridge University, putting it on a par with some of the most famous public schools.

The performance of pupils at the London Academy of Excellence — known as “the Eton of the East End” — is as good as Millfield achieved last year, where six pupils accepted Oxbridge places. The academy, based in Stratford, east London, also compares well with schools such as Gordonstoun, where Prince Charles was a pupil, according to Janette Wallis, editor of the Good Schools Guide.

The academy has secured more Oxbridge offers than all the schools in the borough of Newham managed last year. Michael Gove, the education secretary, is likely to hail the result as a triumph for his free school programme, even though there are clearly failures in the system as some are set to close and some have very high profile incidences of failure, such as the Al-Madinah school in Derby.

The academy, which has been open for only 16 months, is the first free school to be backed by private schools, including Brighton College, Eton, Roedean, City of London and Highgate. Teenagers must wear business-style suits and the school day ends at 5pm. It was set up with the aim of getting bright children from poor families “into the very top universities”, it offers only “hard” A-levels such as maths, history or physics and half its teachers are Oxbridge graduates.

The pupils celebrating their success last week are from the first year of the sixth-form college to take A-levels. Nearly all said they had thought Oxbridge was out of their reach.

Audrey Walela, 18, the daughter of an immigrant nurse, has an offer from Oxford to read human sciences while Onkar Singh, 18, the son of a builder, is going to Downing College, Cambridge, to read modern languages. He sat by the window for three hours waiting for the postman to deliver the letter offering him a place and says his mother “started crying immediately” when he broke the news…

The academy was the brainchild of Richard Cairns, head of Brighton College, whose work as a governor of Kingsford Community School in Newham had convinced him of the area’s need for a college to prepare pupils for the top universities. “My ambition was for it to secure as many Oxbridge places as a typical independent school. I’m thrilled this has been achieved at the first time of trying,” he said.

Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the governors and former head of Harrow, said: “We are very pleased with these results which suggest there is much untapped potential in the state sector. But we have only been open for four terms: this is just the beginning.”

Tony Little, headmaster at Eton, said one of the next challenges would be to encourage more white working-class children to apply to the academy. Only time will tell if this school gets stronger and stronger. It does help to have some very high profile backers though.

Government secretive about free schools: One woman’s battle for the truth

We all know that free schools are being approved up and down the country whether we like them or not. What we don’t know is how the government choose which ones to approve and which ones to reject. Well the Guardian published an article by Laura McInerney, who is taking on the DfE in a legal battle to force the government to release this information under the Freedom of Information Act. Here is what she says;

I never intended to involve the lawyers. Really, I didn’t. I made a simple request for information from the Department for Education, expecting they would just hand it over. But, rather than release it, Michael Gove, the education secretary, has told MPs he will do “everything possible” to stop me getting it. In the coming months, his department is taking the Information Commissioner – and me – to a tribunal in an attempt to block its release under the Freedom of Information Act.

This whole saga started 15 months ago, when I submitted what I thought was a simple request for information to the DfE. What explosive material did I want? A surprisingly dry package: the application forms sent in by people applying to run free schools, and the letters later sent back explaining whether or not they were successful. Hardly the Pentagon Papers.

To say I am surprised the DfE is behaving in this way is an understatement. I thought the request was a no-brainer.

For the uninitiated, the free schools policy, introduced in 2010, allows any group of people to apply to the DfE for funding to open a state school. The government talked at the time about the policy’s prior successes in America and Sweden, but the lesson of the American experience is that some US states do it well and some do it badly. To further research the topic, I took a break from my job as a secondary teacher, and in August 2012 accepted a Fulbright scholarship to study at the University of Missouri.

It quickly became apparent to me that implementation matters – and the application process is critical. If taxpayer money is being handed out to members of the public, we need the government to be savvy about which groups they back and why.

So I decided to ask for the applications and the basis of the government’s choices – a process that is otherwise entirely opaque. Prior to 2010, the opening of new schools was far more transparent. The reasons for accepting or rejecting all new school bids were routinely published on the Schools Adjudicator website. Local authorities published school bid information when running new school competitions. Naively, I assumed the government would maintain this level of openness.

The information, however, was nowhere to be found.

I therefore asked for it from the DfE, using the Freedom of Information Act. The act is not well known, but it embeds in law the presumption that information held by public authorities is open to anyone who asks for it, unless there is a specific reason not to disclose. And, usually, even if there are reasons why the government would prefer not to give the information, those reasons must be balanced against public interest. As I saw it, if this sort of information had been available before, why not now?

Yet the DfE rejected my request – twice. Among the reasons given was that releasing the information “would allow opponents of free school applications to attack applications more easily and could undermine local support”. But why shouldn’t the public know about any issues with the applications? It is our money paying for the schools and our children walking into them. It also claimed the amount of information released would be “overwhelming”. Given that the department trusted me to teach people’s children, I’m fairly certain I can handle reading some application forms.

Nevertheless, the department disagreed. When a public authority turns down a request even after you have appealed to it, you can then appeal – free – to the Information Commissioner’s Office, an independent authority whose job it is to uphold information rights.

I was reluctant to go down this route, but was encouraged by FOI campaigners. As one pointed out: “A response is not a favour to be granted, it is a legal obligation. You are a member of the public, and you are paying their wages. You have a right to the information.” In the past 15 months, I have repeated this point to myself time and again.

Getting an ICO judgment was not quick, but their officers were extremely helpful. My case worker constantly and professionally explained the legal oddities and remained upbeat. Yet each time there was progress, the DfE would raise a new point – dragging the whole process on for months.

In July 2013, I was finally told the ICO was near a decision. Nothing. By September, the draft notice was apparently ready. Still nothing. In October, I wrote asking for an update. Nearly there. By mid-November, I had practically given up when an email from the ICO dropped into my inbox.

I had won, and then some.

Figuring it out was not easy. Flicking through the 17-page judgment, written in legalese, I struggled to understand what it meant, but the following line made it all worthwhile: “The Commissioner considers that the public interest factors in favour of the disclosure of the withheld information are very strong.”

This was not a half-hearted judgment. The ICO argued that the case for disclosure was “very strong” and it would provide “considerable information about the implementation of a relatively new and very important education policy”.

The news was timely, arriving hot on the heels of troubling free school developments. Al-Madinah free school’s Ofsted report labelled it “dysfunctional” and inadequate in every category. King’s Science academy in Bradford is being investigated for fraud. Discovery New School, Crawley, is considered so problematic that it must close before the end of the academic year.

And these free schools have been no small cost to the taxpayer. A recent National Audit Office report price the policy at over £1.1bn. Of this, more than £700,000 was spent on schools that passed the application stage but never opened, and £241m went on schools that opened in areas with lots of spare local school places. The NAO report also noted that some high-scoring free-school applications were rejected, but some low-scoring ones were accepted. Why? On what basis? No answer is given.

How can the public be sure ministers weren’t waving through applications from their mates and turning down those whose faces didn’t fit? We can’t. Without the applications being public, there is no way of knowing if the process was corrupt, or not.

Also, school applicants must include evidence of local “demand” or “need” for their proposed school, usually gathered during a required local consultation. But how can residents know that the reported results of the consultations are fair? There is nothing to stop applicants from writing that everyone was positive at the event even if the exact opposite is true.

Of course, amid this mess some free schools are doing marvellously. I recently visited Greenwich free school, one of the most over-subscribed schools launched under the policy. I was impressed with the teaching, and the pupils, and I spent time discussing with school leaders how the school might continue being great. In fact, it is precisely because I want free schools to be great that transparency is so important.

No one benefits by having applications locked in a dusty vault. In fact, in the US, supporters of the policy – such as the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools – actively press for total transparency around the process. In this country it would build public support, prevent cronyism and allow prospective applicants in areas with huge primary school place shortages to learn from the best applications and improve their chance of getting the school they need.

And so I ended 2013 much as I finished 2012 – sitting down, for the second New Year’s Eve in a row, to write an appeal against the DfE’s counterproductive desire for secrecy. This one, however, will be sent to a judge in the First-tier Tribunal, who will hear the case brought by the DfE against the ICO and me. These courts are designed with lay people in mind, and no legal aid is available, so I am likely to be representing myself.

Surrounded by highlighters, guidance documents and notes, I veer between feeling like Erin Brockovich [the US activist – played by Julia Roberts in a movie – who fought an energy company over contaminated water] and a 12-year-old trying my best with a history project. Still, parents, teachers, pupils and local residents deserve absolute openness in the operation of our schools. I plan to do everything possible to make sure they get it. After all, as I have told myself for the millionth time, transparency is a right – not a favour.

The tribunal is expected to take place in the summer of this year, and I will of course be bringing you the outcome as and when it happens.

Free School Fraudsters questioned by police

If we didn’t think the wheels were coming off the wagon with respect to free schools, this is certainly going to put another dent in the confidence of free schools.

hree men have been interviewed by police in connection with suspected fraud at a free school. The men were interviewed under caution as part of an investigation relating to Kings Science Academy in Bradford.

They were invited to the Trafalgar House police station in the city on Friday, West Yorkshire Police said. Officers said the investigation came after enquiries by the West Yorkshire Economic Crime Unit and it would be “thorough and swift”.

Kings Science Academy, which is a co-educational school for 11 to 18-year-olds, opened in September 2011 and was one of England’s first free schools. As a free school it is state-funded but not under local authority control.

The Department for Education published an Education Funding Agency investigation report into the financial management at Kings Science Academy in 2013. Det Supt Lisa Griffin, who is leading the inquiry, said: “I will be considering all the information and potential evidence gleaned so far and over the coming weeks to ensure that the investigation is both thorough and swift.”

The force’s enquires have included speaking to senior managers at the Department for Education, the Education Funding Agency and Kings Science Academy it said.

Haste and poor planning putting free schools at risk?

In the past few weeks there have been worrying signs all is not well with free schools. A string of scandals in a handful of schools, involving financial mismanagement, poor education and allegations of bullying have hit the headlines. Are the wheels coming off the project, or are these teething problems inevitable in any big new project?

On Friday Lord Nash, the free schools minister, released a letter admitting that out of 24 free schools that opened in 2011 and had so far been inspected, six were below par. Five were deemed to be “in need of improvement” while one was judged “inadequate”.

The government pointed out that that meant nearly three-quarters of free schools had been rated “good” or “outstanding” compared with just 64% of maintained schools inspected over the same period.

In fact the number of struggling schools is seven, if you include Al-Madinah, the first Muslim free school, which received an emergency visit from inspectors last month after weeks of headlines alleging that non-Muslim staff were forced to wear the hijab, lessons were sacrificed to prayer sessions and children were banned from singing and reading fairy tales.

Launching free schools has been controversial within the educational establishment. Many of the early free school pioneers, such as teacher Katharine Birbalsingh, who has battled for three years to open the Michaela Community School, say they have been the targets of protests and pickets, even death threats, by left-wing and union activists determined to stop them. The publicity about such rows has left parents unsettled. Are they right to be worried?

The inspiration for Britain’s free schools movement is widely accepted to be Sweden, where a controversial programme of “free” schools was introduced in 1992. The aim was, as it is now in Britain, to force up competition among schools and so raise standards. Private firms were allowed to set up schools and the fees were paid by local councils, but there was little government scrutiny of their affairs.

In 2008, Gove, who had visited Sweden’s schools and been impressed, said: “We have seen the future in Sweden and it works. Standards have been driven up. If it can work there, it can work here.”

But far from rising under the new system, standards seem to have dropped in Sweden, even as free schools have mushroomed. In 2000, the country ranked 10th for reading, 16th for maths and 11th for science, according to worldwide rankings published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The UK was ranked 8th, 10th and 5th respectively. By 2009, Sweden’s scores had fallen to 19th for reading, 26th for maths and 29th for science, with the UK ranked at 25th, 28th and 21st. The 2009 report also showed that the number of Swedish students who did not possess basic reading skills had increased to nearly one fifth of the total.

Sweden’s minister of education, Jan Bjorklund, has placed much of the blame for the country’s poor performance on free school reforms enacted by previous governments. Neither does he hold out much hope for the 2012 scores, due to be released next month, telling The Economist: “I assume the results will continue failing.”

One reason for the free schools’ lack of standards is thought to be their widespread use of unqualified teachers. A 2012 investigation by Swedish TV found that 80% of Swedish schools employed teachers who lacked full certification. In 150 of these, about 40% of teachers were not fully qualified. The decline could also be linked to large-scale immigration in the past decade, may from war-torn countries.

Last week came a further blow when one of Sweden’s largest free sector school operators announced it would shut, leaving hundreds of students stranded. JB Education, whose schools educate about 10,000 Swedish pupils, said on Thursday that it would sell 19 of its high schools and close down the remaining four…

What are the lessons for England? Alison Wolf, an educationalist and professor of public management at Kings College London, still backs the reforms, and describes them as “phenomenal” changes achieved by idealistic people battling against hostile conditions.

“I don’t think the wheels are coming off free schools,” she says. “Inevitably, when you set up a project like this, there will be parts that are simply not very good. The same thing can be seen in America. In some cities [free schools] have pushed up standards. In others, their results are not fantastic. Just because you have a few schools where things are not good, that doesn’t mean the programme is failing.”

Wolf does say, however, that the programme may be being pushed through too quickly. She says that in Gove’s haste to open a critical mass of free schools before the next election — when a new government might reverse the policy — some mistakes might have been made.

Are schools set up by teachers better?

Ed Vainker always fancied the idea of “taking the best bits of education” and starting his own school. So when the coalition government launched its free schools programme in 2010 – allowing parents, teachers and other members of the community to set them up – he joined forces with geography teacher Rebecca Cramer and did just that.

Influenced primarily by the American charter schools – which receive public funding but are not constrained by government-sanctioned curriculum or standards – the pair founded the Reach academy in Feltham, south-west London, a four-18 school with daily English and maths classes for all pupils, lessons in philosophy and logic, and an extended school day.

“Coming to work every day with people with a can-do attitude, people who believe that anything is possible and have a shared vision about what they want to achieve is a real pleasure,” says Vainker, a former history teacher who is now principal of the school.

Why opt to establish a free school, given the controversy surrounding their standards, employment practices and the impact on other local schools? Although the Department for Education says many free schools have been founded by teachers, it cannot give precise figures.

Overall, there are now 174 free schools in England – with a further 100 expected to open in September 2014. But Ofsted inspections of the first 24, published in August, showed that six were rated as “requiring improvement” or “inadequate”. And with controversy over the Al-Madinah school in Derby, labelled “dysfunctional” by Ofsted, teachers who have set up their own schools could find themselves under scrutiny.

Free schools have come under fire for paying vastly over-inflated salaries, imposing religious dogma on children and employing unqualified teachers. Last month, Annaliese Briggs, the head of the Pimlico free school in central London, who had been criticised for having no teaching experience, stood down.

And, last week, a report by the Education Funding Agency (EFA) – the Department for Education’s accounting watchdog – uncovered sustained financial mismanagement at the Kings Science academy in Bradford. The investigation found that £76,933 of funds had not been used for their budgeted purposes by the school, including £10,000 in bogus claims for property rental.

But most teachers who have established free schools would argue that their institutions are quite different. Many hire qualified teachers, pay in line with national pay scales and broadly follow the national curriculum.

Free schools have also often given the teachers who founded them greater job satisfaction. Tania Sidney-Roberts, who set up the Free School Norwich last year, thinks starting the primary school, which opened last September, has helped her achieve her mission to create a “nicer place for teachers to work” – primarily by reducing paperwork – and help to support working parents by opening longer (apart from bank holidays and a week at Christmas, the school – which has 168 pupils – is open six days a week, all year round).

She says: “The schools I had worked in over the years, certainly in Norfolk, were on the receiving end of an endless drip-feed of whole-school strategies imposed by local authorities – many of which were very time-consuming and ineffective.”

Staff work longer school days than teachers elsewhere (the school is open from 8.15am until 5.45pm), but have saved time by ditching government school-improvement and -assessment strategies in favour of their own systems, which are “much less hassle to complete”.

To compensate for the long hours, the school year is divided into six terms, with a two-week break between each and four weeks over the summer, which gives teachers the chance “to recharge their batteries” while support staff run holiday clubs to cover the vacations.

And there are no “nasty long corridors with echoey floors”, says Sidney-Roberts. The school is decorated like a home, with carpets, curtains, cushions and soft lighting. Even the children have their own “living room” and staff are known by their first names. “I have worked in several schools where staff are almost expected to be like clones and not really have a personality…but here there is a much more informal, homely, relaxed feel.”

While there are no soft furnishings at the Reach academy (which is, temporarily, located in a former jobcentre while a new building is being constructed), pupils are also on first-name terms with staff – the idea being that “everyone is equal and no one feels better than anyone else”, says year 8 student Ryan.

Underpinning everything the school does is the belief that every child has the potential to achieve the highest grades and go to a top university regardless of their background or prior attainment. Anyone who doesn’t subscribe to that view doesn’t make it past a first interview – something that attracted English teacher Beck Owen.

She says: “I was so vehemently opposed to what we were trying to do in my old school – and what all schools all over the country are doing – getting children C grades and thinking that was an acceptable target. We have to believe that if we work hard and they [the students] work hard that we can do it – because otherwise there is no way it can happen.”

But it does mean a lot of work. Teachers are expected to eat lunch with the children every day to help pupils develop social skills, and run extra-curricular clubs and booster classes – outside the school day – for children who need extra help. And all teachers have mobile phones on which parents can contact them up to 8pm on weekday evenings.

Owen says she regularly puts in 14-hour days and works at the weekend. But in a small school (the Reach academy has just 217 students) where teachers get a say in its day-to-day running – and are appreciated – it is worth it.

“There is a sort of culture of joy here and they are very good at saying ‘we appreciate you’. That might be sending you an email to say ‘that was amazing’ after observing your lesson or leaving a Post-it note in your room that says ‘I really like the way you did this’. It’s those little things that constantly let you know that what you are doing is valued and is changing lives.”

And there are other, more tangible benefits. The super teacher scheme encourages pupils to nominate staff who go the extra mile to win cinema or restaurant vouchers, and teachers can take some of their holiday during term time in a exchange for a week working at the Reach Academy’s summer school. They also get performance-related pay and bonuses – something Owen admits was a big draw.

“In most school systems, you become a great teacher and then you’re taken out of the classroom to do other stuff – it doesn’t really make sense. My bonus last year was very strongly linked to how well I’d done in the classroom, so it feels like you’re actually being rewarded for your hard work.”

But it’s not all about “gimmicks” says Peter Hyman, the teacher (and former adviser to Tony Blair) who founded School 21 – a four-18 school in Stratford, east London, which opened last year. Here the key is simply a “shared vision”, he says. “The people I’ve employed are not ‘yes’ people. They’re creative, free-thinking, opinionated people who want be in an environment where there is no hierarchy of ideas, where everyone gets listened to and is involved in shaping the direction of the school.”

Richard Booth, founder of the Reach free school in Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire, which opened last month, agrees. He has employed a team of teachers who are “excited about having a say in the development of their subject”.

Booth and Hyman have introduced unorthodox subjects into the curriculum – “developing kindness and character” at School 21, and “community common room” (essentially about volunteering) at the Reach free school.

They are aware that they are under the same pressures to achieve as every other school. “Although they [the teachers] can tailor the curriculum in the way they see fit, they obviously have to keep their eye on the fact that in five years’ time our first GCSE results will come out and we will be judged on that,” says Booth. But as free schools grow in size – most only have one or two year groups so far – maintaining their unique ethos could become more of a challenge, admits Hyman.

“In a small school with a flat structure, all teachers can be involved in shaping the direction of the school, but when you scale that up, there is always the worry that some things could get knocked out of shape.”

And not everyone is convinced that schools started by teachers are offering anything unique. “The kinds of things people are calling ‘innovative’ about these schools – different term times, longer school days, a wider range of subjects – much of it is possible for local authority schools, and certainly all of it for academies,” says Jeremy Rowe, head of Sir John Leman high school in Beccles, Suffolk. “So they might be good ideas, but ultimately they’re ideas that any teacher, working in any school, might have.”

Vainker is confident that the Reach academy’s approach is working – and says he has the results to prove it. Around 75% of pupils are reading at Sats level 1b at the end of reception (the expected level for pupils at the end of year 1) and most year 7 pupils are working at level 5 – that of a typical 13-year-old. He says: “Our children are the best critics of what we’re doing and as one child said to me recently ‘the hours are long, but the days are short’. That said it all really.”

Parents of children in free schools prefer council input

As we’re all aware, free schools and academies are outside of Local Authority control and do not have to follow the National Curriculum, despite being assessed against it.

It would seem that parents who send their children to free schools would like to have council input. A huge majority of parents who send their children to free schools in London believe the schools should be subject to greater oversight, according to a YouGov opinion poll.

The survey found that 91% of parents with a child at a free school think local authorities have a key role in ensuring high standards. Free schools may be set up by parents or private companies, and are state-funded but outside local authority control.

The poll indicated widespread support for local authorities: 78% of parents praised the council-run school admissions process as “easy”. It comes amid controversy over free schools, which were thrust into the spotlight last month when Derby’s Al-Madinah school was called dysfunctional by Ofsted and threatened with closure.

A row has erupted over a proposed free school in Islington, London, on a site earmarked for social housing. Nick Ward, a teacher at Bethnal Green Academy, said: “Islington does not need a school run by a private consortium, taking resources from well-performing local schools, without the control of local democracy and staffed by potentially unqualified teachers, but it does need more social housing.”

This to me sounds like parents don’t believe free schools to be as all singing all dancing as Michael Gove is hoping. Local Authority supervision is important as it allows close monitoring of performance of these institutions and bring support to schools not making the mark. Those who read my blog on my take on academies (https://markmelaney.wordpress.com/2013/10/16/academies-my-take/) will know that without LA present, support can and often is very limited or indeed non-existent, exposing these schools to closure, which will affect the parents in terms of finding a new school for their child in an area with limited places. It is understandable knowing this why parents would want the LA supervising.

Education: a game of two halves

I’m sure those who are more the sporty type may recognise the football reference this time round. These are mooching, introspective times for English football. Never has our national game been richer or more popular. Never has it been more widely and scathingly maligned.

The failure of the national side to make more than a modest dent at any major tournament in the last generation has been compounded by the eclipsing of our top club sides at European level. In last season’s Champions League, the world’s leading club competition, no English team made it beyond the last 16. Other nations have streaked ahead in terms of tactics, training and governance. To be involved in English football these days is akin to being a BBC television presenter in the 1970s – not condemnable in itself, but certainly enough to make folk a bit suspicious.

And yet from English soil rise great English monuments, symbolising a determination to thrive. The new national football academy at St George’s Park in Staffordshire was acclaimed as one of the finest training facilities in the world when it was opened last month. The redeveloped Wembley Stadium may have cost an arm, a leg and several bureaucratic red faces, but it is built, it is ours and it is magnificent. As the sun sets on the ”golden generation’’, attention now turns to the next generation. English football is in a fight for its own relevance, and its next frontier is the classroom.

Well why is a teacher talking about football? What’s this got to do with education? Well, we have Free Schools to thank (oh god). Manchester City and Everton are just two of the Premier League clubs who have taken advantage of the Coalition’s education reforms to open their own free schools. Connell Sixth Form College in east Manchester opened its doors to 60 students last month, with the aim of taking on 300 pupils from some of the most deprived areas in the region.

Everton Free School, located at four sites across Merseyside, has been going for more than a year now and was recently named as one of the best football community programmes in Europe. Tottenham Hotspur, meanwhile, are sponsoring a new technical college in north-east London, in partnership with Middlesex University, that accepts its first intake in September 2014.

The idea of a football club running a school conjures up all sorts of surreal images: keepie-uppies in the corridors, perhaps, or children being tested on their knowledge of historic FA Cup winners. The reality is a little more prosaic. These are regular schools, with the odd twist. Like the long-standing Ashton-on-Mersey school in Sale, which is sponsored by Manchester United (BOO), setting up a school gives football clubs a certain stake in the education of their young players. The likes of Gerard Pique, Danny Welbeck and Jonny Evans were schooled at Ashton-on-Mersey while youth team players at United, eventually graduating to the first-team, international honours and — in Pique’s case — a World Cup win.

Similarly Connell, which is in the process of building a brand-new campus just a stone’s throw away from City’s Etihad Stadium, provides the club’s apprentices with their own tailored education. “Their teaching is very much within a flexible timetable, around their training sessions,” says Gillian Winter, the principal of Connell, which is run in partnership with the Brights Future Educational Trust. “The great advantage of our college is that we do have extended days, so three times a week our college is open until 8.15pm. That means that the elite athletes can come in after the end of the official college day and do independent study, guided by the teachers. Then there are things like the virtual learning environment, which allows athletes to access their studies anywhere in the world. Even if they get sent to Japan or South Africa, for instance, they can continue their studies in their hotel room or wherever.”

The curriculum, almost surprisingly, is not geared towards a sporting existence. “We offer PE, we offer level-three BTEC sports science, but essentially what these athletes tell us is that they want to study an academic curriculum that they would have had access to had they stayed at school,” says Winter. “Because if they don’t make it in sport, they need something to fall back on. And we are providing them with the education which will allow them to achieve if they don’t make it in their chosen sport.”

The benefits for regular students are both tangible and intangible. “Elite athletes are always very well-disciplined people,” says Winter. “They’ve been exposed to a variety of experiences that our students haven’t necessarily done. But they can share those with our students, which is opening their eyes to horizons beyond college. That’s one tremendous plus.”

Meanwhile, the revelation that some Connell students were offered free tickets for the Champions League home game against European champions Bayern Munich last month will be enough to have every Light Blue kid in Manchester pestering their parents to get them in. And yet competition for places is expected to be fierce. Entry requirements are currently five GCSEs at A*-C grade, with at least two at grade B, and passes in Maths and English.

Prospective students at Everton Free School undergo psychological profiling from the school’s resident psychologist to assess their suitability for admission. The school’s motto mirrors that of the football club: “Nothing but the best”.

This may not be education for the masses – class sizes are kept low in order give each child a tailored learning experience. But footballing free schools are anything but elitist. Rather, they offer aspiration for children who have frequently been failed by the education system.

Before Connell opened, east Manchester was virtually devoid of half-decent sixth-form colleges. A bright 16-year-old with designs on going to Oxbridge from Droylesden or Gorton, say, was faced with the choice of travelling miles for their further education or dropping out of school altogether. “What we found when we looked at the demographics and we looked at what young people were doing was that some of them were having to travel a long way for an academic education,” Winter says. “Others just went into a job, which of course this year they can’t do. It has brought academic aspiration into east Manchester, which is tremendous, really.”

Or as Jim Battle, deputy leader of Manchester city council, said at the time Connell secured its funding: “Regeneration should be indelibly linked with aspiration.”

So, how does all this help our football clubs? One of the reasons Premier League teams reacted so enthusiastically to the free school movement is linked to the existing football academy system. Because of their studies, school-age footballers aged nine to 16 currently receive about five hours of training a week – far behind their counterparts in France, the Netherlands or Spain, where 15-20 hours of training a week are generally the norm.

It is during these formative years that other nations have opened up a gap on us. The humiliating performance of the England under-21 team at the European Championships this summer underlined the rawness of our young footballers, and the need for an education system that optimises their athletic potential. In return, regular students are infused with a little of sport’s ruthless quest for excellence. In short, everybody wins; one day, possibly even the England football team.

Give Muslim free school more time … PLEAAASSEEE!

We’ve been hearing a lot recently about a certain failing Free School set up in Derby. Well, a new parents’ group set up to support Derby’s failing Muslim free school is to petition the Government for time to turn the school around.

The Parents and Friends of Al Madinah School has been formed following a meeting of mums and dads last weekend in the wake of a damning report by Ofsted. It called the school, which has sites in Nelson Street and Friar Gate, “dysfunctional”, “in chaos” and “inadequate”, placing it in special measures.

Schools Minister Lord Nash had already given the school until November 1 to come up with an action plan to make improvements or face having its funding cut and closure.

Parent Abdul Ghafar said: “We feel very much let down by the Government. It seems our children are not being treated like children from other state schools in the area, which are also in special measures. We request that the Prime Minister shows he really does care about our children and gives this school more time and support to get things right.”

Parents will be attending meetings over the next few days to launch a campaign based on giving the school time and support to deliver the changes required.

Mr Ghafar said: “We expect more than 200 parents to attend and we aim to have a petition with thousands of signatures of support. We are not prepared to let this school close.”

The petition reads: “This is a petition by the parents and friends of Al-Madinah Free School, Derby. We strongly believe that this school should be given the same opportunities and support to improve as other state schools locally and nationally, when they are under special measures. We have confidence in the governors and staff to achieve this, God willing. We believe this free school, given time, has the potential to become an outstanding school.”

The school, which has 412 pupils aged four to 16, hit the national headlines after it was revealed on September 20th that non-Muslim female staff were being forced to cover their heads with a hijab – an Islamic head scarf.

Lord Nash ordered the school to stop the practice and it is no longer a requirement of staff dress. He also imposed two interim deadlines by which the school needed to supply him with information ahead of November 1st. One expired last Tuesday and the other, which required the management to satisfy Lord Nash it was fit to run the school, was yesterday.

The school and the Department for Education remained tight-lipped about whether or not the deadlines had been fully met. A DfE spokesman said: “Information has been sent to us but we will not be formally commenting on what we have received.” He declined to comment on the petition.

The Free School Debacle – My take

It’s been an interesting weekend in terms of education this past weekend. Within the past couple of days, Michael Gove’s flagship policy, Free Schools have been back in the news once again.

Over the weekend, Liberal Democrat Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (who’s he?) has reported that Free Schools need tougher controls, ie only employing fully qualified teachers as opposed to the current structure when they can employ basically any Tom, Dick or Harry. Mr Clegg also doesn’t like the fact that Free Schools are not required to adhere to the national curriculum. He believes that they should follow the national curriculum so that parents can be sure that their children were receiving a high standard of education.

Well this morning the Tories, in particular Education Minister Elizabeth Truss, has hit back at Nick Clegg, outright rejecting the calls for tighter controls. Mrs Truss said: “It’s a shame some Lib Dems didn’t back Free Schools. The whole point of these schools is they have freedoms. That’s what’s helping them outperform maintained schools. On average, Free Schools are doing better … academies improve performance more rapidly.”

Ok Mrs Truss, I don’t like the fact that you are calling Academies and Free Schools the same thing. The reality is these two school systems, while they operate in a similar way, are not identical. Yes both are outside Local Authority control, do not have to adhere to the national curriculum (despite Ofsted assessing them against it), and they can employ unqualified teachers, but there is one key difference: who and how they are set up. Academies are often very high performing schools converting into an academy, or poor performing schools being ‘sponsored’ by someone on behalf of the DfE to build up support and the quality of the school. Free Schools are slightly different. Often these are set up by parent groups and are often state-funded, to which academies are not necessarily.

The other thing that bugs me about what Mrs Truss said was about Free Schools doing better. Am I the only one who thinks this is an attempt to try and make people forget about the al-Madinah Free School in Derby that was deemed inadequate by education watchdog Ofsted? This isn’t the only Free School deemed inadequate or requires improvement either. This means that even Ofsted, who largely will want to produce results which will please the government, are not necessarily that impressed by some Free Schools.

I also agree with Mr Clegg with respect to the curriculum, although with some limitations. Mr Clegg makes the point: “why do we have a national curriculum if only a handful of schools have to teach it?” He’s right in that sense, but what he’s ignoring is whether this curriculum is fit for purpose. In many respects, the national curriculum isn’t for teachers, pupils or parents. It is largely for the government to say ‘look at our education system! This is what English children can do at this age!’ What the current curriculum, and in some respects even the curriculum due to come in over the next couple of years, both primary and secondary, neglects is the ability to be creative with children’s learning.