How will being in a Free School change what happens in the mind of an 11 year old?

18th September 2011

“Suppose that a Minister promises, as David Blunkett did, to improve standards of reading and writing among eleven year olds. Implicit in this comment is that, one way or another, the minister can influence what happens inside the head of an eleven year-old in, for example, Widnes.” (Barber, 2007)

This quote is personally meaningful because I was a secondary school pupil in Widnes during the reign of Blunkett. It’s also an extraordinarily humbling point, emphasising that when politicians claim they will change education they are really saying they can get inside the head of a child and change their habits and behaviours.  Cognitive re-engineering, if you will.  Now, it is possible to do that – I’m a teacher, it’s what I try to do each day – but because I do it every day I also know how complicated, surprising and downright difficult it is to achieve.  So if a politician is waving around a policy and I can’t see how from there we get to better learning then they need to start explaining better.

One problem for Gove is that few of his policies make this link. For example, in recent weeks Gove claimed that by reducing behaviour guidelines from 100 to 30 pages and stopping automatic teacher suspension after allegations of abuse, the behaviour of children will improve. The line from the documentation to the child is so vague it’s transparent.

Likewise the current Free Schools rhetoric goes: “People with high expectations will open schools…something will happen…. everyone will get good results.”  But as with the underpant gnomes in South Park what exactly is happening during this ellipsis is almost entirely neglected from the conversation.

Only one positive has so far convinced me Free Schools might help improve education. A colleague recently pointed out the opportunity for greater experimentation; that by freeing schools from the constraints of the Local Authority they will test new ideas and, if these ideas work, other schools replicate the successes.  This is precisely the path of Apollo 20 – a program in Texas designed to take lessons learned from US Charter Schools and apply them to public schools – and was the subject of a recent New York Times article.

Of the 5 things hypothesised as the foundation for success in Charter Schools several are echoed in the Free Schools marketing here – most notably, increased instruction time and ‘more effective teachers in schools’.  While increased instruction time is hotly contested (see evidence in a recent Shanker Blog) it is impossible to implement more broadly without greater funds.  While Free Schools speak of increased time as a core premise, almost all are relying on miracle philanthropists or teaching staff with unsustainably copious energy.  Few have also said where they will find or how they will train their advertised ‘effective teachers’.

Finding sustainable ways to implement changesacross all schools is tough but several US Charters show promise.  The MATCH School in Boston runs an internal, residential teacher training programme.  During the week teacher ‘residents’ work for the teachers, creating resources, doing 1:1 tuition or sports with students, and completing lectures on educational theory. One day a week trainees are able to hone their teaching skills in the classroom, providing a much-needed planning break for teachers who can then spend the time ensuring their following weeks’ lessons are of the highest quality.

As an 11 year-old, sitting in Widnes, had there been teachers with adequate time for planning, with helpers for creating resources, working with us 1:1 and developing our skills through lots of extracurricular activities I can see how much more enriched my school experience would have been. In this instance the line is clearly drawn between policy and improved learning.

Next time someone in the UK says their Free School or Academy is the answer – don’t dismiss them, but do challenge them.  Ask for the line between the policy and the 11 year old. Don’t accept vague notions about ethos or subjects, ask for the precise ways the classroom will differ, minute to minute. Hopefully, they will give a good answer – maybe about the way they’ve trained teachers or particular techniques that work. If they do, nick it and tell as many other teachers as you can, because the people who really want educational success want it in all schools not just the favoured few.