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26/10/10

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Is the New Schools Network fit to run schools?

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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  1. This is absolutely right. Above all, our children deserve really well trained teachers. Training is the key. I was an expert in my subject when I went into the classroom, but it was my training that enabled me to teach effectively. And this training needs to be ongoing: I’ve been teaching twenty years and still need it. Rachel Wolf and the NSN is perpetuating a very destructive lie that our children don’t need trained teachers. The private sector is full of them — and the reason why I pulled my son out of private school! In recent years, there have been some great improvements in teacher training which have certainly benefited me. The teachers coming through now are much better trained than they used to be. There’s still work to be done, but getting rid of teacher training is the ROAD TO RUIN!

    What is needed is a relentless, constant drive to improve

  2. We have one of Gove’s “16” Free Schools proposed to open Bedford. The campaign leader, Mark Lehain, uses exactly the same sort of misguided arguments as Rachel Wolfe (I imagine they are friends….I kid you not). The scary thing about Lehain is that he refuses to enter into any local debate, so we are none the wiser about location, catchment, practices and procedures, curriculum, the teaching team. The worst of it is the fact that both BKFS local campaign & the DfE won’t release the full version of the Stage 2 proposals – leaving local schools, the LA & the public high & dry when it comes to the important details. The only conclusion I can draw is that they have the loftiest sense of entitlement or they have something to hide. Either way, I wouldn’t want my kids taught by people like this. The shame of it, is that it will draw funds away from existing schools….

  3. I suspect the worst of both worlds -lofty entitlement and something to hide. I thought they were supposed to run a consultation, meaningless as that may be, it could smoke out some of these facts.

  4. The Free School situation in Bedfordshire is yet another example of the lack of proper scrutiny that these free schools are being subjected to. Everyone in Bedfordshire should be signing the e-petition:
    http://www.councillorsupport.bedford.gov.uk/mgEPetitionDisplay.aspx?ID=14&RPID=4286053

  5. Barbara Welford says:

    I too am appalled by the interview. It exemplifies the adage that anyone can teach because they’ve been to school. It is hard to credit that a government can play fast and loose with our children. I still cannot get any info under FoI about the Free Schools Network. So undemocratic – something to hide for sure.

  6. sarah dodds says:

    Can someone please explain to me why well trained, talented and passionate teachers and TAs are being the shown the exit door, while untrained ones are being ushered in at the same time?????????

  7. Nowhere in this debate has any mention been made of meeting the needs of children with special educational needs (SEN) in free schools, although it has been said that free schools are supposed to have a mixed ability intake. If I have learned one thing about meeting the needs of children with SEN it is that it takes hightly trained teachers to effectively meet this aim. Quite how academics and industrialists, no matter how gifted, are to achieve this aim, I don’t know. We already have schools, we already have passionate and well trained teachers, but the government is willing to let these schools wither and die and to let teachers lose their jobs, for the sake of financing the free schools experiement. In allowing untrained ‘teachers’ to be employed in free schools the government is willing to put at risk the education of the children that go to them. Children with SEN (and for that matter, all children) need to make any time spent in school really count. They don’t have time to be ‘guinea pigs’ for the benefit of this free schools experiment.

  8. “Can someone please explain to me why well trained, talented and passionate teachers and TAs are being the shown the exit door, while untrained ones are being ushered in at the same time?????????”

    I’ve every confidence that this is not happening. What is happening, however, is that “well-trained” = left-wing ideologue indoctrination; “talented” = never produced any decent results with a class of pupils; “passionate” = workshy and terrified of a decent performance management system.

    Have you read the international research that tells you that the biggest impact on educational outcomes is the quality of the teacher, which in turn is largely determined by the ability to attract and performance-manage the best people for the job? Nothing to do with teaching “qualifications”.

  9. To Fiona’s original post:
    ” ‘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. ”

    but surely better than the state system where a complete lack of accountability ensures that the bad ones are NOT weeded out over time? Again, with no consolation for the children whose school lives are ruined? And without even the defence that at least the parents had the choice…

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