Is the New Schools Network fit to run schools?

Fiona Millar's picture
Listening to Rachel Wolf, CEO of the New Schools Network, on Radio Four's Today programme this morning, it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that this organisation is not really fit to set up new schools.

Questioned about whether children should be taught by unqualified teachers, she made several very dodgy claims. The first is that free schools with unqualified teachers couldn't be set up unless parents were behind them. But of the 16 free schools that are allegedly starting this year ( government sources estimate that only fewer than half will actually open on time) , seven are being set up by faith-based groups, one is a private school conversion , two run by childcare providers and two sponsored by a single academy group, ARK, that happens to be well represented among trustees and advisers of the New Schools Network, the charity that arranges these deals and which has received £500,000 of taxpayers' money. Even if parents were 'behind them', they would have no way of knowing if the unqualified  and not yet appointed teachers were any good, until they had spent some months experimenting on their children.

Ms Wolf  then went on to claim that this 'freedom to be unqualified' would allow people with other areas of expertise, like academics or industrialists, to walk straight into the classroom and start teaching and that  'accountability' would weed out the poor ones over time. Again not much consolation for the children whose schools lives have been ruined in the interim. As Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers pointed out on the same programme, knowing something is not the same as being able to teach it to someone else.

But the coup de grace was surely her claim that this freedom would  allow teachers from the private schools ( where they don't need to be qualified) to move into the state sector. The idea that this should be welcomed is based on an assumption that private schools are automatically better than state. In fact there are many mediocre private schools - not all are like Eton, St Pauls and Westminster. Former Chief Inspector of Schools Sir Mike Tomlinson once told me the worst of the private sector was worse than anything he had ever seen in the state sector .

But more importantly, teachers in private schools generally teach to a very narrow ability range ( academically selected, well off, middle class and predominantly speaking English as a first language). Therefore they don't have the necessary expertise to cope with the wide spectrum of ability, and often complicated social backgrounds, found in many state schools. Where schools do succeed against the odds with challenging intakes, it is often because their heads focus not just on the personal needs of the students, but also on the professional development of the teachers.

Inadvertently, Rachel Wolf may have alerted us to two important points: the first is that rather than obsess about new structures, school reform should concentrate on getting even better teachers in all schools - and that means better leadership, training and development rather than armies of  unqualified teachers.

The second is that, as we have always suspected, free schools aren't really for the broad, wonderful, diverse mass of students we know in our local schools, but for the children of self selecting groups of middle class parents - like Toby Young and his mates - who would rather not pay school fees. Their offspring may cope with second rate untrained teachers. The rest of our children deserve something better.
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