The Local Schools Network: a broad church

Francis Gilbert's picture
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The aim of the LSN is to support and celebrate local schools. I was talking at an Academy, Barnfield South in Luton, yesterday as a guest speaker at their prize-giving. It was very clear to me that this was an excellent local school, with fair admissions and a staff committed to their local community. All the principles of the LSN were in place at the school: a commitment to having a non-selective intake, a belief in excellent teaching, accountability to the local area -- the Local Authority has virtually vanished in Luton but there is now a Federation in the area which is basically operating like an LA, co-ordinating a number of schools and colleges. I think we should celebrate the Academies which believe in these values and that they should be part of the LSN. They explicitly said that they won't ever try and "cream" off the best pupils for themselves. The school is thriving, despite having over half their pupils on Free School Meals.

Recently, concerned by the popularity and broad-mindedness of the LSN, the Conservatives have got very worried and started attacking us, and me in particular. My crime is that I've changed my mind: a few years ago I used to be a strong advocate of a "voucher-type" system for schools, a bit like the one that Michael Gove is trying to institute right now. I felt at the time that this was the way to raise standards. I also sent my son to a private school in keeping with these beliefs: I felt that a free market system would solve our education problems.  I believed in selection.

Then my world began to unravel. It was clear that my son hated the private school where he was being prepped to take entrance tests for the private secondary schools. Furthermore, a huge amount of research evidence was emerging from the United States and Sweden that creating a free market in schools was not only not working, it was lowering standards, increasing social segregation and wasting huge amounts of taxpayers' money. I swallowed my pride and admitted I was wrong: I pulled my son out of private school and -- once he was at our local primary -- saw how he flourished mixing with children of all social backgrounds. I also saw that the educational approach of his state primary school was much more effective in raising his attainment because it motivated him to learn, rather than creating in him an awful fear of failure.

I conducted more research into charter schools. I was (and am still) doing a PhD which trained me up in analysing statistics; I saw that the most substantive statistical research into charter schools, the Stanford Credo report, conclusively proved that charter schools and an unbridled free market system in education led to a lowering of educational standards.  These views began to surface in my critiques of the education policies of the Labour and Coalition governments for various publications and blogs I wrote.

I changed my mind. In this sense, I am a problem for the Conservatives: I used to believe that selective schooling and a free-market system would raise standards, lifting an elite above the lumpen mass of the uneducated. I no longer believe that. I would like to thank Paul Goodman, the author of the Conservatiive blog on me, because he's carefully selected quotes from my articles over the years that have charted the change in my views. It was fascinating for me to read it to see how far I've come. A few years ago, I was a different person; I was convinced that the free market could solve all our woes. I was a classic Tory. Now I'm not; I am full of doubts about that vision of the world. We live in very different times.

We have a duty to educate all our children to a high standard and insist upon high standards in all schools. But we can't do that in a selective system: schools need a mix of children of all abilities. Furthermore, schools do a better job if they are supported and celebrated, rather than attacked and denigrated.

What I like about the LSN is that it embraces people like me. I remain fairly "traditional" in other areas in that I think we do need to keep Standard Assessment Tests, I am suspicious of much of the jargon that floats around in education, and I actually believe that a lot of the Labour government's policies, which overloaded schools with centralised dictats, were wrong. I no doubt hold some views which other LSN supporters disagree with, but that's the whole point. We are a broad church. We are not about supporting one political point of view, we are about supporting and encouraging a school system which will educate all our children to the highest standards.
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